Death in the Channel: ‘My wife and children said they were getting on a boat. I didn’t hear from them again’
According to his friends, Harem Pirot was an excellent swimmer. In the summer of 2019 he and a neighbour Anas Muhammad set off from their home in the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Ranya to nearby Lake Dukan, a popular picnic and boating spot.
“Harem was a really good person. He could swim well in deep water,” Anas said yesterday. “Our families knew each other well. A great guy. He was 25.”
But Pirot’s swimming prowess was not enough to save him last week from an icy and agonising death in the unforgiving English Channel. He was one of 27 people, mostly Iraqi Kurds, who perished last Wednesday in the world’s busiest shipping lane after setting off from the coast of northern France in a flimsy dinghy.
Relatives in Ranya say they believe at least 10 of their kin were on the ill-fated boat. They have not been formally notified by authorities in Iraq, or France. But the checks they have made by themselves, with mortuary staff, Kurds in Dunkirk camps and, in some cases with the smugglers who organised the journeys, have left them certain that their family members are dead.
Precisely what befell the group in the dinghy is unclear. But relatives who were in contact with their loved ones by mobile phone in their last minutes paint a terrible picture. The craft began taking on water. It may have been struck by a larger vessel or its wake, or it could simply have started deflating. Those on board would have started bailing desperately.
Someone in the dinghy tried to alert the French authorities and then the UK coastguard. Relatives said by this point the boat was in British waters. They needed urgent assistance and rescue. But help didn’t come in time. Instead, Pirot and his fellow refugees found themselves in the freezing grey water.
Passengers included Pirot’s friend Twana Mamand Muhammed, also from Ranya. There was a family from the Iraqi Kurdish town of Darbandikhan: Khazal Hussein, 45, and her children Hadia, 22, son Mubin, 16 and younger daughter Hasti, seven. As hypothermia and exhaustion set in, those in the water died, one by one. Currents pushed them back towards France.
In Ranya, anxious families tried to sleep. Some were reassured by messages sent from the boat as it headed towards England. Tuesday night was calm and still. It was time to brave the channel – the final stage of a precarious journey from the homeland.
At first, the signs were promising; the journey had gone well enough to put the passengers in English waters, so the families back home thought. UK authorities would surely take things from there. But dawn broke to silence. The phones that had kept Ranya up to speed with the journey were no longer on. And nor were those of the smugglers in France.
Fishermen eventually spotted bodies at 2pm on Wednesday. Two male survivors – an Iraqi and a Somali – were pulled from the waters and taken to hospital in Calais. The death toll was 27 – the biggest known number of fatalities since refugees began making the perilous journey to Britain. Relatives waited for news. By Saturday grief set in. It became clear there was little hope.
“My wife and children were unhappy with our life here. They wanted us all to go to the UK,” Khazal’s husband, Rezgar, said. “I told them I couldn’t come because of my job as a policeman. I would lose it. They insisted to go so I agreed I would join them if they made it, and if they didn’t, they could come back. I never knew it was risky.”
Rezgar said his last contact with his family was around 10pm on Tuesday. “They said they were about to get on a boat. After that I didn’t hear from them again.” Rezgar said he still didn’t really know what had happened. “I beg you, tell me if you have any news from them,” he said.
The brother of one of the victims said the passengers had been communicating with UK authorities for 20 minutes before they were lost. “The waves brought them back to French waters,” said Zana, whose brother Twana was on the boat. “And all this time, no one came to help them. I would be grateful if the British or French brought his body home. I don’t want anything from the Kurdish authorities. They were the reason he left.”
Pirot had been trying to reach England to meet his brother Anwar, a Sheffield graduate, now living in Cambridge. The reunion didn’t happen. Instead Anwar made a cruel reverse journey, travelling to Calais. “I tried to identify my brother’s body. But I’ve been told to wait until Monday, when the morgue reopens after the weekend,” he told the Observer.
Anwar said DNA tests were being carried out, with the results expected in two weeks. He was tired and exhausted, he said, and reluctant to accept that his brother had died until formal confirmation came through. He had spent hours outside Calais police station trying to get information, without much success, he said.
At the makeshift camp near Dunkirk where Pirot had been staying, friends expressed shock and dismay. Anas Muhammad brought up Pirot’s Facebook page and photos from home, including one of him with a bike. “Actually his family was poor. The bike was borrowed,” Anas said. “Like all of us he left because of social and political problems.”
Pirot set up his Facebook page using a jokey nom de plume, Harem Almas – Almas is the Kurdish word for diamond. Beneath his profile photo is a post that says simply: “That is all … I will not wait your return. Because soon I will also go.” A final image shows him praying.
Pirot left Ranya two months ago. He reached northern France via Turkey and Italy. Like many of those living in the woods near Grande-Synthe, west of Dunkirk, he had compelling family reasons for coming to the UK – but no legal route. Several of those camping in the rain and mud had worked in Britain or had close relatives there.
Many more of those on the ill-fated boat had also set off from the Ranya area at the foothills of the Qandil mountains in Iraq’s Kurdish north-east. Sons and daughters of the area had long migrated to Europe. The journey had always been hard, but this one was different. A hastily arranged flight to Belarus, with no screening before usually hard-won visas were issued, seemed too good be true.
And it was. “We were pawns,” said Mustafa Akkawi, who made it to the Netherlands in April. “I say ‘we’ as in us Kurds. This time it was cynical by the Belarussians. They were doing what Putin told them to do. They were using our people to pressure Europe.”
Anas said he had last seen Pirot on Tuesday. “He said he was leaving by boat and asked me if I wanted to take any of his stuff. I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said. He and his friend Amanj, a 20-year-old Kurdish political activist from Iran, were still intending to go to by boat to Britain, despite two previous failed attempts in the past two weeks.
The first time they set off their boat broke down one and a half hours into the journey, after the outboard motor developed a problem, Amanj said. The French coastguard rescued them and brought them back. They were due to travel the same night as Pirot but had to turn back after the van transporting them to the beach blew a tyre.
Related: Inside Dunkirk’s desperate refugee camps: ‘They take risks because they feel they have no choice’
Typically, Amanj said, the smugglers made deals with families at home. Sometimes they turned up at the camp in masks. The crossing costs about £3,000 per person, with cash demanded in full once their loved one had made it to Dover. One of the Iraqi Kurdish smugglers who arranged Pirot’s crossing has since deleted his Facebook page and WhatsApp account, Amanj said.
Despite Wednesday’s tragedy, hundreds of people are still camped out, waiting for the right weather conditions. One refugee, Mala Rachman, 24, began crying when the Observer showed him a photo of Khazal – the mother who drowned on Wednesday with her family. “I knew her! She was a lovely lady,” Rachman said.
Rachman said they had started chatting outside Auchan, the French supermarket near the camp – the “jungle”, as the refugees call it. The French authorities had organised for her and her children to stay in a hotel and she was waiting for transport. “She saw me on my own and invited me to join their family. But I wasn’t allowed because I’m a single man,” he said.