Shaheen Sheikh Ali knew something bad had happened when he saw frantic activity in a family WhatsApp group.

Four male relatives, all under the age of 30, are suspected of being on board the fishing boat that sank in the Mediterranean, 80km off the Greek coast.

“People are waiting for any piece of good news,” he told the BBC. But they’re all fearing the worst.

The 31-year-old now lives in Germany but he’s Syrian and from the majority Kurdish city of Kobane. He knows of 12 people who are believed to have been on the boat.

It’s one of the worst migrant tragedies in recent years with nearly 80 people dead and at least 100 rescued. But it’s suggested that as many as 750 people may have packed onto the boat, including 100 children.

“We hadn’t heard from them for days and didn’t even know if they were on the boat,” said Mr Ali, adding that the group’s last contact with relatives back in Syria took place almost a week ago.

Since 14 June, he and his family have received conflicting news about whether the group is dead or alive.

“In incidents like this, you can’t know for certain whether someone is dead or alive. One word can destroy the morale of the whole family,” he said.

For British Pakistani journalist Raja Faryad Khan, it’s good news – his 22-year-old nephew Adnan Bashir is one of the few survivors,

But his relief is tinged with sadness as up to 16 people from his village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir could have been on the boat.

Mr Khan travelled from the UK to the Greek port city of Kalamata to meet his nephew but was only allowed a few moments with him by the security guard.

“(My nephew) said the boat was shaking and it became one sided, and then the boat was just gone into the sea,” said Mr Khan.

Back in Germany, Mr Ali is living with the agony of uncertainty as he describes the journey his relatives took.

They were smuggled from Syria to Lebanon before flying to Libya where they stayed for 40 days waiting for a chance to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Italy.

According to Mr Ali, the group paid at least $5,000 each to the smugglers, but this didn’t save them from harsh treatment by their hosts.

“The smugglers picked them up from the airport and chucked them anywhere they could,” he said.

He says his relatives were placed in a “block of concrete” with no furniture and had to sleep on blankets laid out on the hard floor.

The last time he spoke to anyone from the group was early June, when some of his relatives hinted that a crossing could be imminent.

“They told me they would leave soon because the weather was hot and the sea was calm enough,” Mr Ali recalled.

His relatives shared photos that raised alarm bells. “I saw expressions of sadness in their eyes but it could also have been fatigue.”

What makes his pain deeper is that he himself risked his life to escape the war in Syria in 2016.

But he said that at that time, it was much easier for people to reach Europe, as more migration routes were available.

Mr Ali crossed the Turkish border before setting off on a much shorter boat journey to Greece.

“I took a dingy to get to Greece but it was a 4km journey,” he said. “When we left, we could see the lights from some of the Greek islands.”

The distance from Libya to Italy is at least 725km. Another difference pointed out by Mr Ali is that the passengers on his dinghy all had life jackets.

The Greek coastguard has said none of the people on board the capsized fishing boat were wearing them.

Mr Ali can easily place himself in his relatives’ shoes though, imagining what they “must have been thinking” before getting on the fishing boat.

“You don’t know what will happen. You worry someone might die, someone might fall off,” he said. “No matter how I try, I can’t describe how I feel in relation to this tragedy.”

The 31-year-old is disgusted at the role played by smugglers, whom he accuses of “treating people like meat”.

“I imagine those smugglers do not even count how many people they are putting on a boat. They don’t care about the consequences.”

And then an appeal for more understanding and solidarity.

“People need safer routes. No one will ever stop migration, neither European countries or anyone,” he said.

“My relatives were only dreaming of coming to Europe to work and help their families.”


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