‘Don’t come back without your brother’: Anguished search for lost Tunisian

Rashid is on a desperate quest to find his brother Nader, lost at sea, who left Tunisia by boat to join him in Italy.

Nader, who set out to Italy from Tunisia, seeking a better life [Courtesy of Rashid Ghammam]

Lampedusa, Italy – Rashid Ghammam has the tired eyes of someone who hasn’t slept for days, making him look older than his age.

The 38-year-old speaks of his younger brother in the present tense, not giving up hope that Nader is alive.

Nader jumped on a boat around August 25, having decided to leave the Tunisian town of Mahdia to take the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to catch up with his older brother in Rome, Italy.

He hadn’t told anyone his plan.

At 9:30pm on August 26, Rashid got a call from his mother in Mahdia, telling him that Nader had made the crossing and was in Lampedusa. She had received a call from Nader’s friends.

The next morning, a Sunday, Rashid’s phone rang again as he was out grabbing a coffee. It was a friend of Nader’s who was already in Italy – he had found out that Nader wasn’t in Lampedusa as they had thought.

At midnight, another, more frightening call came: “They said: ‘Call rescue, Rashid! Immediately!’”

Nader had not made it to Lampedusa after all. He was still in the sea, and his friends who were on the boat with him had finally managed to get through to Rashid.

“I called the Italian rescue services from midnight until 4am, desperately waiting for a response,” he told Al Jazeera.

Nader had spoke to Rashid often about leaving Tunisia
Nader spoke to Rashid often about leaving Tunisia [Courtesy of Rashid Ghammam]

When he managed to get through at 4am, the response was disheartening: There was nothing they could do for his brother and he should contact them again from Lampedusa.

He got there that same day.

For the love of a brother

In Lampedusa, Rashid sent out more pleas for help and tried to get into the landing hotspot where new arrivals were held.

He wanted to talk to the people who had been on the boat with his brother.

The police wouldn’t let him in, but he somehow managed to talk to some people who were on the boat.

“They ran out of petrol about 17 miles [27km] from Lampione [an island near Lampedusa],” he said.

As a result, the boat remained stationary for about a day and a half, during which time a fight broke out.

“There was a fight, a man was threatening others with a knife, a young boy was begging him not to kill him, to just throw him into the sea alive. My brother was probably injured and thrown into the sea because he defended this boy,” Rashid says.

That Rashid loves his brother is apparent on every inch of his face and in the tightly coiled anxiety of his body.

Being in Lampedusa is bittersweet for the man who arrived at this very spot nearly two years ago as an irregular arrival himself, driven out of Tunisia by his construction company folding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With no other options, Rashid had made his way to Lampedusa and northwards on to Rome where he now lives, studying aviation service and taking baking and cleaning jobs to pay his way.

He has learned to speak Italian very well and was supposed to be done with his studies in a few days, but now he laments: “I don’t want to study or work any more. Now, I don’t want to do anything. I just want to know what happened to my brother.”

Gabes beach
Nader departed from a beach in Tunisia, on board a rickety boat that ran out of fuel [Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Rashid spoke to Nader often about life in Italy, as the young man had long bemoaned wanting to leave Tunisia, hoping his brother could find a job for him in Italy so he could join him there someday.

But eventually Nader tired of hearing his brother tell him to be patient and took matters into his own hands.

Rashid’s kind face crumples a little and his voice shakes when he remembers how Italian authorities dealt with his brother’s life as a trivial matter, of little value.

“The Italian authorities have no humanity. The police treated me very badly. They slammed doors in my face, but luckily there are also good people here,” Rashid said.

Surprisingly, Rashid isn’t angry at the authorities so much as he is sad and misses Nader terribly.

“The whole city [Mahdia] loves my brother. He stands up for his friends. If you need anything, he’s the first to help,” he says of his brother.

“He helped out for his friends’ weddings, helped them build their houses because he’s also a construction engineer. The whole city is on pause, 10,000 people stopped, waiting for news of my brother.”

Rashid’s mother is beside herself in Mahdia, calling him several times a day.

“Nader was so good to my parents. My mother calls me all the time, asking if I’ve found Nader. She says: ‘Don’t come back without your brother.’ I swear, those words kill me,” says Rashid.

Both his parents are in shock and often stand, side by side, looking out at the sea that took their child and crying.

“I’ve never seen my father cry, this is the first time,” Rashid says.

Rashid thanks everyone who tries to help him reconstruct what happened on the boat, and the journalists who interview him, appreciating any help he can get. He’s determined to keep going, to figure out what happened to Nader.

Rashid says his brother Nader had tried to help a young boy on the boat, risking his life
Rashid says his brother Nader had tried to help a young boy on the boat, risking his life [Courtesy of Rashid Ghammam]

Reconstructing a tragedy

Emanuele Ricifari, police commissioner of Agrigento, a Sicilian town near Lampedusa, said: “The Italian authorities have done all they can” in the matter of finding Nader.

Moreover, he claims, Rashid’s account contradicts what the people on the boat said happened. But other than saying that the rescue team did not see anyone else in the water, he refused to divulge anything more about “the ongoing investigation”.

Rashid is frustrated and keeps expressing it: “How is it that when the rescuers arrived, nobody thought to mention that my brother was also in the sea?”

“But I know my brother, he can swim really well, so I asked for a boat or helicopter search because I thought he must still be alive. But the Italian authorities wouldn’t listen, they just told me to go to Agrigento and file a report,” he adds, referring to the southwest city on the Italian island of Sicily.

“Everyone sent me away, telling me to go back home or to work. It looks like Italian authorities don’t value the lives of migrants.”

The people on the boat with Nader have changed their story often, which makes Rashid think they are afraid of something, or of someone exacting revenge on them for talking, or even taking it out on their families back in Tunisia.

Rashid is also worried for his safety, as the people responsible for his brother disappearing are out there and the witnesses to what happened are being sent around Italy, where he won’t be able to find them.

“I’m going to talk to a lawyer. I want to know the truth, where’s my brother? Why has he alone disappeared, out of 90 people? Why are 90 people scared to talk?”

Rashid did manage to speak to two of Nader’s friends who were on the boat with him, asking them questions through a metal grate because the authorities would not allow him in to speak to them properly.

Through the conversations, he was able to put together a vague timeline.

As the boat lay stalled in the water, Nader had come over to his friends in an agitated state, tense because there was an altercation at one end of the boat.

While the group wasn’t clear what exactly happened, they had seen a young boy running around the boat, screaming: “Please, no! Throw me in the water but don’t kill me!”

Nader had been sure that the boy was frightened of an older man who had killed someone on the boat and was menacing the boy, at one point wrestling him down to the bottom of the boat, according to Nader’s friends.

The friends noticed a smudge of blood on the boy’s neck, and eventually believed Nader, realising the blood had probably transferred from the bully’s hands to the boy, and that the bully was probably also a killer.

When the boy came running around, Nader, his nerves already stretched to a breaking point, sprang up and jumped out of the boat.

His friends, now unsure of how safe it was in the boat, jumped out after him.

The young boy was thrown into the water a short while later. He was rescued shortly after but was separated from the three men in the water.

After floating together for about two hours in the sea, Nader’s friends told Rashid, Nader started swimming away, telling his panicking friends: “you won’t make it and I’m going to drown if I stay with you”, and swam away, telling them each to swim in a different direction.

Rashid collected these grim testimonies in varying states of distress, beseeching God for mercy and sending up prayers that if the bully survived and was in the Lampedusa centre, then maybe his brother would turn up soon.

But as the days pass, hope is getting harder and harder to hold on to.

Source: Al Jazeera