THE LEVANT NEWS –ZAKHO, Iraq | By Isabel Coles and Shadia Nasralla FOR REUTERS —
In photo after photo, Sediq Sevo’s Facebook page lays out the riches and allure of Europe.
In one picture the young Iraqi Kurd poses beneath the Eiffel Tower. In another he stands in a neon-lit restaurant in Rotterdam. A third has him grinning beside a train in Milan.
He stopped posting pictures in August. That was the month Sevo helped smuggle five fellow Iraqi Kurds to Europe, he told Reuters. They ended up dead, trapped with 66 other migrants inside a truck abandoned alongside an Austrian highway.
Like Sevo, many of the dead came from Iraqi Kurdistan. They had joined hundreds of thousands of people who have entered Europe illegally this year from homes wrecked by civil war, sectarian violence or repressive governments in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Many are young men ready to risk their lives for the chance of stability and wealth. On their side are determination, sheer numbers, and people-smugglers.
Human brokers such as Sevo play the central role in many migrants’ journeys. He was the first in a chain of people that helped the five men make their way from northern Iraq through Turkey and Bulgaria to Serbia, Hungary and finally Austria.
“I have good experience in the smuggling industry,” he told Reuters in a phone interview in October. “I have been working for more than seven years in the smuggling sector … I used to take people from Kurdistan to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece all on foot and by car.”
Like the thousands of Central Americans who pour into the United States, or the Rohingya Burmese who flood into Thailand and Malaysia, illegal travelers worldwide depend on an industry run by networks of individual criminal entrepreneurs. More than 3,000 people-smugglers were arrested in Europe in the second quarter of 2015, according to European border control agency Frontex – the biggest number since records began in 2007. But the networks are often too diffuse and complex for fragmented law enforcement services to unravel.
The violent unraveling of Iraq has been a major source of business for traffickers. More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced by fighting since the start of 2014. The United Nations’ deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq said 10 million Iraqis would need humanitarian support by the end of this year. Some 6,000 Iraqis have reached Greece or Italy in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration – five times more than last year.
So far, Hungarian police have arrested five men – four Bulgarians and an Afghan – in connection with the deaths. One man has also been arrested in Bulgaria. Hungary’s prosecutor has agreed to take over the case; prosecutors in Budapest have yet to say whether they will raise murder charges.
Sevo is back in Iraq, where he has gone into hiding after the families of two of the migrants he helped complained to the Kurdish security services about him. He says he has nothing to apologize for, and blames another Kurdish smuggler called Bewar, whom he calls the weak link in the network. It was Bewar, Sevo says, who foolishly entrusted the five men to two other smugglers without checking up on them.
Reuters could not reach Bewar and it is unclear how close Sevo is to other smugglers in the chain into Europe. Sevo is keen to distance himself from those further down, in particular Bewar.
Neither the Austrian nor the Hungarian police would comment on their investigations. Hungary has an extradition agreement with Iraq dating to 1977 which has not been used for years, a diplomatic source said.
Sevo told Reuters he is not sure what happened to the truck, but he thinks some kind of police check must have caused the driver to abandon it and flee, so the people inside “ran out of oxygen.” The last time he spoke to Bewar was on Sept. 1. His fellow smuggler had rung from Greece to ask Sevo what had become of the five men.
“Bewar is to blame because when he passed the job on … he didn’t get any information” about the migrants’ whereabouts, he said. “Even now we don’t know the truth.”
Two of the men Sevo dealt with were second cousins who had both served in the peshmerga, the armed forces of the semi-autonomous area of Kurdistan in northern Iraq which have been fighting Islamic State since last year. The cousins came from well-off families in Duhok, the region’s third biggest city.
The younger of the two, Semian Nasser Mohammed, was 25 and had pondered leaving Iraq for months. Mohammed’s father described his son as quiet but amiable. He liked raising animals. His father wanted him to settle down and marry, but Mohammed said he would wait until the war was over.
His second cousin, Nashwan Mustafa Rasoul, was 28, owned a car and liked to listen to Lebanese singer Elissa, or to Ibrahim Tatlises, a Kurdish singer in Turkey. He loved Apocalypto, a Mel Gibson film set in pre-Colombus Central America. He swam and spent time in the countryside.
Both men were increasingly frustrated with life in Kurdistan. They had been fighting Islamic State in Tel Asqof, a Christian village north of Mosul. But thanks to an economic crunch in Kurdistan over the past year they – like most other state employees – had missed three months in salaries.
“They complained about instability and the problems with electricity and petrol too,” Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast said in an interview at the family’s home. “They preferred to travel in search of stability and ease. Mentally he (Rasoul) was not at ease. None of us are after the economic crisis.”
Rasoul worried about the future and the lack of opportunity in Kurdistan, said his brother-in-law, Reveng Jalal Ibrahim. “They (fight) for their country, but their country is doing nothing for them.”
When Rasoul and Mohammed returned on home-leave in early August they told their families they were leaving Iraq. Their parents tried to dissuade them but the men would not listen.
Rasoul had already made contact with Sediq Sevo, who knew the families from the past.
Sevo is from Zakho, an ancient city on the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. He told Reuters that in the mid-2000s he worked as a “guide” – he prefers that to smuggler – and helped take between 100 and 150 people to Europe. In 2007, though, he was arrested for smuggling and imprisoned for about eight months. When he was released, he worked as a painter and in construction, including a stint in Greece.
He returned from Greece on Aug. 1. Within days, he said, young men wanting to get to Europe approached him for help. Among them was Rasoul.
Sevo asked for $8,000 each to take the cousins to Germany, according to Rasoul’s elder brother Sarbast. The men haggled that down to $7,500 and Rasoul sold his car for $18,900 to pay the fares.