Mohammed al-Jaf was working as a policeman in Kirkuk when he came to the conclusion that life was not going to get any better in Iraq. “Things are so difficult here in Iraq and especially in Kirkuk,” al-Jaf told NIQASH. “As policemen, we were under threat all the time and I wasn't making enough money to make my family happy. That's why I decided to try and start a new life in Europe.”
A city in northern Iraq, Kirkuk has become well known as a multi-ethnic flash point where political and sectarian disputes have caused all kinds of problems, some of them deadly. As a policeman there, al-Jaf was in more danger than in many other Iraqi areas.
So the 39-year-old sold his house and his car and decided to leave, together with his 34-year-old wife and their five children. On October 16, 2015, the family flew to Turkey. “There I contacted one of the Kurdish smugglers and he agreed to take us in a boat to Greece for US$3,000,” al-Faj continues. “On October 18, he told us the boat was ready and would take 20 passengers. He also sent me a picture of the proposed boat on a messaging app and I agreed to it. But when we arrived at the launching site it was a totally different boat and there were about 50 people trying to get on it. I was scared.”
Al-Faj talks about how the people smugglers sold them on to other people smugglers twice, before they even boarded the boat. Turkey is considered the best port of embarkation for Iraqis because it is easier for Iraqis to get into that country. From there those Iraqis trying to get to Europe will end up passing through the hands of, and paying, a number of people smuggling rings, with each guaranteeing them safe arrival at their destination of choice.
As al-Faj continues his story, he becomes tearful. “A strong wave hit the boat around midnight just as we were getting close to the Greek island of Lesbos,” al-Faj recalls. “The boat capsized and out of around 50 people on the boat, 25 people were rescued, 12 drowned and 13 are missing.”
Four of those who drowned and two of the missing were from al-Faj's family. Four days after the incident, al-Faj decided to bury his four children's bodies in a Muslim cemetery on another Greek island, Kos. They were Khanda, 16, Helen, 10, Van, 6, and Ahmad, 4. Al-Faj still hoped that the bodies of his wife and 11-year-old Abdul-Razzaq might be found. But the Greek government stated that they considered the 13 missing from the boat drowned.
“I am so sorry about what I did,” al-Faj says sorrowfully.
Al-Jaf's father, Ahmad al-Jaf, is 72 and lives in Kirkuk. Almost three weeks after his family died at sea, he says he begged his son not to leave. But he wouldn't listen. “The only thing I want now is to recover the bodies of my daughter-in-law and my five grandchildren,” al-Jaf told NIQASH.
“Right from the start I felt that they were traveling the wrong way,” says the brother of al-Jaf's wife, who also still lives in Iraq. “But Mohammed said he must find a better way of life for his family. He told us not to worry or to be sad and that in 15 days, he would send us pictures of himself and his family in Germany. Five days later, I was told that my sister and my nieces and nephews were dead.”
All of al-Jaf's relatives in Iraq want the Iraqi Kurdish government to help them bring the bodies home, but this seems unlikely to happen now.
In the meantime al-Faj has decided to continue his journey to Germany alone. He buried his children and then with the further help of other people smugglers, he made his way to northern Europe. He is now living in a refugee camp there. Although he says he has lost his will to live in many ways, he does not plan to return to Iraq. He says he will never go back again if he can help it.