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One man's desperate search for his son lost in a migrant shipwreck near Greece

Mohamed Diab, the father of 21-year-old Abdulrahman, centre, who was on the boat that sank off the coast of Greece, holds a phone showing a photo of his sons.
Mohamed Diab, the father of 21-year-old Abdulrahman, centre, who was on the boat that sank off the coast of Greece, holds a phone showing a photo of his sons. Copyright AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
Copyright AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
By Euronews with AP
Published on
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Mohamad Diab - one of many relatives still searching for news of their loved ones - refuses to believe his son is dead.

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Nearly two months after a fishing trawler crammed with people heading from Libya to Italy sank in the central Mediterranean, killing hundreds, relatives are still searching for their loved ones.

In June, the boat, carrying an estimated 500 to 750 people mostly from Pakistan, Syria and Egypt, capsized and sank in the early hours of the morning.

It was one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

Only 104 people were pulled from the sea alive. Eighty-two bodies were recovered. The rest, including women and children, sank in one of the deepest parts of the sea. 

Hellenic Coast Guard via AP, File
Scores of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece.Hellenic Coast Guard via AP, File

With depths of around 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) in that area, any recovery of the vessel or its victims is all but impossible.

Identifying the dead and determining exactly who was on board is a slow process.

By 7 August, around 40 of the recovered bodies were identified through a painstaking process combining DNA analysis, dental records, fingerprints and interviews with survivors and relatives.

The task is complicated by a lack of information on who was on the boat, and by the fact many were from countries where, due to war and civil turmoil, relatives are struggling to provide DNA samples.

For some, the lack of a body to bury means they hold out hope, however improbable, that their loved one is somehow still alive.

“In my heart I feel that my son is alive, by God’s grace, and I don’t believe even 1% that my son is dead,” said Mohamad Diab, whose 21-year-old son Abdulrahman has been missing since the trawler sank. “I don’t even think about this.”

AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
Mohamed Diab, the father of 21-year-old Abdulrahman who was on the boat that sank off the coast of Greece.AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Diab has all but exhausted his options. He provided a DNA sample, sent relatives to Greece, and spends hours on his phone, making calls and watching and re-watching videos of survivors on social media.

The house painter from an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon on the outskirts of Beirut clings to a single, tenuous discovery: a brief moment in a video of the aftermath of the sinking, when a man resembling his son is carried into a hospital in the southern Greek city of Kalamata.

Although inquiries at the hospital and with Greek authorities drew a blank, Diab insists his son might be in a coma, or imprisoned and unable to contact his family.

But all injured survivors have since been released from hospital, and the nine survivors arrested as suspected smugglers are all Egyptians. Abdulrahman Diab’s name is not among them.

The thought of having lost his eldest son is unbearable. So Diab clings to the hope that somehow, Abdulrahman is out there, still alive.

“My faith in God is great,” he said.

Identifying the dead

In Athens, the Disaster Victim Identification Team continues the process of piecing together the identities of the bodies.

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The team is still receiving DNA test results from prospective relatives abroad, police Lieutenant Colonel Pantelis Themelis, commander of Greece’s Disaster Victim Identification Team, said. 

His team draws on staff from a variety of services as needed, including the fire department, coroners, translators and the police.

Their work, Themelis said, is humanitarian. "It is separate from anything else and has no job other than the humanitarian work of the identification of disaster victims.”

Pakistan has already sent hundreds of DNA test results to help in the identification process, Themelis said. In countries where interviews with close relatives and DNA collection were problematic, that role was being carried out by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"I still have hope"

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For Diab, a positive DNA match would mean all hope is lost for Abdulrahman, who grew up with his three younger brothers in Lebanon’s Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Beirut.

As a teenager he helped his father paint houses, but work dried up after Lebanon sank into a major financial crisis in 2019.

Relatives and friends, including Abdulrahman’s uncle who runs a supermarket in Germany, took the risk to travel to Europe. Eventually, he decided to follow them, arranging flights to Egypt and then Libya, and the risky voyage across the Mediterranean, using a network of smugglers and middlemen.

Mohamad Diab sold his belongings and borrowed money to raise the $7,000 in smuggling fees, hoping for a better future for his son. He never thought the journey could be fatal.

And for as long as he has no confirmation that it was, he can still cling to the belief that Abdulrahman will one day come home.

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“I still have hope, I will not lose hope until I see his body,” Diab said. “I still have hope that I will see him and hear his voice.”

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