The story of how as many as 750 migrants came to board a rickety blue fishing trawler and end up in one of the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwrecks is bigger than any one of the victims. But for everyone, it started somewhere, and for Thaer Khalid al-Rahal it started with cancer.
June 24, 2023 at 8:31 a.m. EDT
The leukemia diagnosis for his youngest son, 4-year-old Khalid, came early last year. The family had been living in a Jordanian refugee camp for a decade, waiting for official resettlement after fleeing Syria’s bitter war, and doctors said the United Nation’s refugee agency could help cover treatment costs. But agency funds dwindled and the child’s case worsened. When doctors said Khalid needed a bone-marrow transplant, the father confided in relatives that waiting to relocate through official channels was no longer an option. He needed to get to Europe to earn money and save his son.
“Thaer thought he didn’t have a choice,” said his cousin, Abdulrahman Yousif al-Rahal, reached by phone in the Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatari.
In Egypt, the journey for Mohamed Abdelnasser, 27, started with a creeping realization that his carpentry work could not earn enough to support his wife and two sons.
For Matloob Hussain, 42, it began the day his Greek residency renewal was rejected, sending him back to Pakistan, where his salary helped put food on the table for 20 extended family members amid a crippling economic crisis.
“Europe doesn’t understand,” his brother Adiil Hussain said, interviewed in Greece where they had lived together. “We don’t leave because we want to. There is simply nothing for us in Pakistan.”
On Matloob’s earlier journey to Europe, he had been so scared of the water that he kept his eyes closed the whole time. This time, the smugglers promised him they would take him to Italy. They said they would use “a good boat.”
The trawler left from the Libyan port city of Tobruk on June 8. Just 104 survivors have reached the Greek mainland. Eighty-nine bodies have been recovered, and hundreds more have been swallowed by the sea.
As the Mediterranean became a stage for tragedy on June 14, a billionaire and several businessmen were preparing for their own voyage in the North Atlantic. The disappearance of their submersible as it dove toward the wreckage of the Titanic sparked a no-expenses spared search-and-rescue mission and rolling headlines. The ship packed with refugees and migrants did not.
About half the passengers are believed to have been from Pakistan. The country’s interior minister said Friday that an estimated 350 Pakistanis were on board, and that many may have died. Of the survivors from the boat, 47 are Syrian, 43 Egyptian, 12 Pakistani and two Palestinian.
Some of the people on the trawler were escaping war. Many were family breadwinners, putting their own lives on the line to help others back home. Some were children. A list of the missing from two towns in the Nile Delta carries 43 names. Almost half of them are under 18 years old.
This account of what pushed them to risk a notoriously dangerous crossing is based on interviews with survivors in Greece and relatives of the dead in Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, as the news sent ripples of distress throughout communities from North Africa to South Asia. Some people spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they feared being drawn into government crackdowns on human smuggling networks.
Rahal’s family said they do not know how he contacted the smugglers in Libya, but remember watching as he creased under the fatigue and shame of having to ask anyone he could for the thousands of dollars they were requesting for safe passage to Italy.
Thirteen men left from El Na’amna village, south of the Egyptian capital of Cairo, in the hope of achieving the same. Ten miles away in Ibrash, another village, Abdelnasser left the house as he usually did for his 2 a.m. factory shift but joined a packed car to Libya instead, along with 29 other young men and boys. “He told us nothing,” said his father Amr. “We would have stopped him.”
Many of the families said the departures caught them by surprise and that local intermediaries working for the smugglers later communicated with relatives in Egypt to gather the requested funds.
In El Na’amna, several people said the figure was $4,500 per person — a sum impossibly high for most rural Egyptians. In Ibrash, Abdelnasser’s uncle said, two of the delegates who arrived to collect the money were disguised in women’s dress. Another woman did the talking. She collected the money, photographed receipts, and then told the family that the deal was done.
‘He said the boat was very bad’
The time spent waiting in Libya was harder than the migrants expected, said family members who spoke with them throughout that period. The port city of Tobruk had become a transit hub for people, and the migrants reported that the smugglers treated them like goods to be traded. The lucky ones rented cramped apartments where they could wait near the bright blue sea.
Travelers who had arranged to meet their intermediaries in the city of Benghazi were transported in large refrigerator trucks to the desert. One survivor described a house there “with a big yard and big walls and people at the door with guns.” It was so busy that people slept in the yard outside. Inside, a 24-year-old Pakistani migrant, Bilal Hassan, tried to lighten the mood by reciting Punjabi poetry. He is smiling in the video he sent his family, but other men in the room look tense.
Some migrants told their families they were getting anxious and didn’t trust their smugglers. Others sent brief messages to reassure and say that they were fine.
Rahal spoke to his wife, Nermin, every day. A month passed with no news of onward passage and his mood darkened. He worried about Khalid. In Jordan, the boy kept asking when he would see his father again. “I don’t know,” Rahal texted in reply. When one smuggler’s offer fell through, he found another who promised to get the job done faster. In voice messages to his cousin, he sounded tired.
“I’ll manage to get the money,” he said.
His last call to his wife was June 8. Men from the smuggling network were yelling at the migrants to pack together as closely as possible in rubber dinghies that would take them to the trawler. Up ahead, the blue fishing boat looked like it was already full.
Matloob Hussein, the Pakistani who had lived in Greece, called his brother from the trawler. “He said the boat was very bad,” Adiil recounted. “He said they had loaded people on the boat like cattle. He said he was below deck and that he preferred it so he didn’t have to see that he was surrounded by water.”
When Adiil asked why his brother hadn’t refused to board, Matloob said the smugglers had guns and knives. As the boat pulled out of Tobruk’s concrete port, he told Adiil he was turning his phone off — he did not expect to have a signal again until they arrived.
After the calls to loved ones stopped, from the foothills of Kashmir to the villages of the Nile Delta, families held their breath.
It felt, said one relative, like a film that had just stopped halfway through.
In hometowns and villages, waiting for news
News of the blue trawler’s capsize trickled out on the morning of June 14. The coast guard’s initial report said that at least 17 people had drowned while noting that more than 100 had been saved. On the Greek mainland, relatives waited for updates in the baking sun outside a migrant reception center. Back in hometowns and villages, some people kept their cellphones plugged into the power sockets so they did not risk missing a call.
The residents of El Na’amna and Ibrash didn’t know what to do. Police arrested a local smuggler but provided no updates on the whereabouts of the missing. Rumors swirled that most were dead. The mother of 23-year-old Amr Elsayed described a grief so full that she felt as if she were burning.
A Pakistani community leader in Greece, Javed Aslam, said he was in direct contact with more than 200 families asking for news. Accounts from survivors suggested that almost all the Pakistani passengers, along with many women and children, had been stuck on the lower levels of the boat as it went down.
Adiil came looking for his brother. He was turned away from the hospital where survivors had been treated, but left his details anyway. Outside the Malakasa reception center, where the survivors were staying, 15 miles north of Athens, several Pakistanis seemed to know Matloob as “the man in the yellow T-shirt.” No one had seen him since the wreck.
Perhaps it was crazy, Adiil said Thursday, but somehow he still had hope. He had registered his DNA with the local authorities and he had spoken to other families there every day. Now he didn’t know what to do with himself. His eyes were red from crying. He carried creased photographs of his brother in his pocket.
In one image, Matloob is standing with his dark-eyed daughter, 10-year-old Arfa. Adiil had told the girl that her father was in the hospital, but that fiction was weighing more on him by the day as she kept asking why they couldn’t speak.
Khalid had been asking for his father, too, but no one knew how to make a 4-year-old understand something they barely understood themselves.
Nermin, relatives said, was “in bad shape.” She had a funeral to organize without a body. But first she had to take Khalid to the hospital for his biopsy, to learn how far the cancer had spread.
Loveluck reported from London, Labropoulou from Athens, O’Grady and Mahfouz from Cairo and Noack from Paris. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, Claire Parker in Washington, Imogen Piper in London and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.