Wexford’s tragic cargo
Next weekend it will be 12 years since eight Kurdish stowaways were found dead in a freight container in Wexford. Last week a man charged with their manslaughter walked free from a court in Belgium
December 2001: the shipping container in which the refugees died. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Reuters
The morning of December 8th, 2001, was unusually bright in the southeast of the country.
A lorry driver collected a freight container, supposedly carrying furniture from Milan, from Belview Port in Waterford. He drove it 60km east to Wexford Business Park in Drinagh, a neat complex on the road to Rosslare, where he stopped for a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. When he returned to the truck he noticed the seal on the freight container had been broken, and the lock fell away in his hands. He became alarmed about the cargo he was carrying.
When the container was finally opened, Garda Supt John Farrelly described the grim contents as “a nightmare of human misery”.
Thirteen people had hidden in the dark container for more than five days. Eight of the occupants, four of them children, had suffocated from lack of oxygen.
What had happened?
Karadede Guler, his 28-year-old wife, Saniye, and their two children, Imam and Bekan, left Turkey in late 2001, seeking a new life in western Europe. Saniye was earning €40 a month as a cleaner in Turkey. They sold everything they owned to pay traffickers.
From Turkey the Gulers made their way across the Mediterranean and north to Brussels, where they were joined by families from Algeria and Turkey. There, Guler says, he paid the equivalent of €15,000 in Deutschmarks to a 21-year-old Serbian man called Bekim Zogaj to transport his family to Britain.
“I arrived at 1am in Brussels station [Gare du Midi],” says Guler. “I waited until 10 o’clock the next night, when a taxi collected me. The driver brought me to a hotel, and Zogaj met me there, but only for a few minutes.”
“After three or four days another family arrived, the Kalendergil family. Eventually there were 13 people. We waited. After three more days we were told we would be leaving.”
They were brought to a truck stop outside Brussels at night, where they slipped into a freight box and were handed bottles of water. Zogaj told them the shipment was bound for Britain and they would be there in a few short hours.
Guler remembers the scene vividly: “It was dark at the container. There was no one around. They told me it would take two hours to get to London. Two hours. I called my sister-in-law and she told me not to get in. But nobody knew English. There was no chance to discuss.”
From Brussels the freight box was sent to Zeebrugge, where it was loaded on to a cargo ship bound for Ireland. Usually this dispatch would be processed in Dover, after a much shorter journey, before being sent on to Waterford.
But, as misfortune would have it, the consignment was sent directly to Ireland.
Storm-force winds blew, and the ship listed and rolled throughout its 54-hour voyage. The box was secured in the hold, near the ship’s engine. Over that time the temperature inside the box rose and the oxygen slowly ran out. There were just four small openings in the roof of the 40ft container, each measuring 15cm by 5cm.
The occupants were sealed in the freight container for more than 100 hours while it made its voyage from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to Waterford, where it then stood overnight.
Those near the bottom died first. Some who lay on the furniture boxes closer to the roof fell into a coma and survived. When the container was opened in Wexford, the dead included Hasan Kalendergil, his 12-year-old son, Kalender, and 10-year-old daughter, Zeliha; 26-year-old Yuksel Ucaroglu and 23-year-old Mustafa Demir. Karadede Guler’s wife, Saniye, and their children, Imam and Bekan, had died too. “I lost everything in that container, he says. “My wife and my family. I can never forget it.”
Phone records presented at a 2003 trial suggested that Zogaj, the man Guler paid €15,000, had been running this operation for some time. They showed that Zogaj and his 18-year-old assistant, Donald Domi, had spent almost every day that month at the same Brussels truck stop, a regular loading point for human traffickers.
Domi told the trial that Zogaj had offered him work that summer and promised him decent pay if he helped out. Both were unsuccessful asylum seekers living in Belgium. Yet, according to Domi, Zogaj always seemed to have money. He wore a Rolex watch, drove a BMW and would give Domi cigarettes and introduce him to women.
The London connection was a 42-year-old Turkish man, Osgur Doganbaloglu. According to Freddy van Damme, the public prosecutor in the 2003 trial, Doganbaloglu was at the centre of a multimillion-euro human-trafficking network.
Doganbaloglu would arrange for thousands of immigrants to be secretly brought into Britain, charging significant sums of money. Van Damme estimated the annual income for this group at €12 million a year.
“He was a specialist in human trade, operating like an illegal tour operator, with people having to pay in full beforehand for the all-inclusive tours,” van Damme told the court.
Although they were convicted of human trafficking and manslaughter at the trial in Bruges in 2003, the two ringleaders, Doganbaloglu and Zogaj, had disappeared. Neither was seen or heard from until last year, when police apprehended Zogaj in Germany.
Five other men were convicted of human trafficking at the trial in Bruges in 2003: Domi; Domi’s father, Flamour Domi; and the three taxi drivers who brought the passengers to the truck stop, Mohamed Kebdani, Enver Berisha and Abedeslam Triva.
In Zogaj’s absence the court in Bruges sentenced him to 10 years in prison, a sentence he has yet to serve.
Zogaj’s lawyer is Filip Mertens. He works from an office with a view along the Coupure, a tree-lined canal in the Flemish town of Ghent. Mertens’s description of the judgments against his client covers a litany of verdicts over 10 years in courts in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels.
Later this year, or early in 2014, an appeal court in Antwerp will host the fifth hearing related to Zogaj’s alleged role in the Wexford tragedy.
Mertens tells me that the initial convictions were invalid, because his client was not present to mount a defence. “You cannot try someone in absentia. I argued under the European Convention of Human Rights that my client deserved a fair trial.”
The first appeal was successful on this basis and a retrial was ordered while police across Europe attempted to track Zogaj down.
But even when Zogaj was finally arrested in 2012 and brought before a court in Ghent in April of this year, the prosecution ran into further difficulty. Elements of the prosecution’s documentation had disappeared.
“Several documents in the case file were missing. I simply could not find them,” Mertens says, adding that his client still pleads innocence to the charges.
Mertens also argued that because nearly 10 years had passed since the initial trial, the court was proscribed from convicting his client. The court rejected this last claim, finding that such a proscription would not apply until December 5th this year. In April, Zogaj’s conviction and the 10-year sentence were reaffirmed, and he was sent back to prison in Lantin.
It was in Belgium’s final court of appeal that Mertens appealed one last time that his complaint of missing documentation had not been addressed by the Ghent court. On Tuesday last week the court of cassation accepted this and annulled the conviction, pending a retrial.
Zogaj walked from court a free man.
No date has been set for the retrial, but Mertens believes no court will be able to prosecute his client now that more than 10 years has elapsed. That will be for the court in Antwerp to decide.
A life in the West
Could it happen again? It has, and it continues to happen. Border security has become more stringent in the past 10 years, but each day at the EU’s periphery, boats, rafts, containers and trucks are secretly filled with desperate human cargo.
Last month more than 360 people drowned when their raft caught fire and sank off the coast of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. They were not the only ones to perish. Twenty thousand people are estimated to have died at the gates of fortress Europe last year alone.
And yet they keep coming. People of all ages and backgrounds, willing to sacrifice everything for a life in the West.
“The pressure for people to use dangerous means to reach safety and security has not and will not diminish,” says Sue Conlan, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council. “Much more needs to be done to provide legal, safe routes of passage into the EU. Without that, people are in the hands of unscrupulous people-smugglers who rarely pay the same high penalties as those forced to rely upon them.”
Survivors of the Wexford tragedy received the disappointing news from Brussels. Guler tells me of his shock at hearing of the verdict this week. “I can’t believe it. This is the man who killed my family. This is not justice.”
Guler has tried to build a new life in north Dublin, without the family who left Turkey with him 12 years ago. In recent years he has remarried and now has young children. He sometimes works in a Dublin restaurant but is looking for work as a welder.
Majjid Habbar, another survivor, who came from Algeria, has married and settled in Wexford. Kadriye Kalendergil’s husband and children died in the container. She now lives in London.
On Sunday, December 8th, a small crowd will gather at a commemorative garden in the industrial park in Drinagh to remember the victims of the 2001 tragedy.
But 12 years on, for Karadede Guler, the pain is no less. Especially when justice appears to elude him still, just when it seemed within his grasp. “When a glass is broken you can’t fix it again. My life is like that.”