As waves crash against a commuter ferry on the Marmara Sea, Mujtaba Haidar lurches forward in his seat. He’s afraid of the water now.
Haidar, 32, and his son Bahram, 8, are the only survivors in their family after a painful journey that began in Kabul almost two years ago and has yet to end.
On the night of Oct. 16, 2015, the family boarded a smuggler’s wooden boat headed from Çanakkale in Turkey to Greece. Haidar paid extra for a sturdier vessel — about $3,000 per person — hoping it would be safer than the rubber dinghies that many migrants were traveling in to make the crossing to Europe.
It was supposed to be a 20-minute ride to the Greek island of Lesbos. But Haidar says the boat lost its way.
“Everybody was checking through GPS,” Haidar says, replaying the scene in his mind. “The wind and waves [were] getting high. Suddenly a big wave crashed the boat. The boat split in half and [in] that second, the boat [went] under the water.”
Of the 48 people on board, only 23 survived. Thirteen bodies were later recovered, but a dozen people are still missing, including Haidar’s wife, Shila, then 29, and their daughter, Zahra, and son, Behzad, who were 8 and 3, respectively.
Since the beginning of 2017, more than 2,400 refugees have died in the Mediterranean trying to cross to safer lands. Some of their remains have been identified, but many are buried without a name, marked only by a number. And many bodies may never be recovered.
Haidar, a businessman who worked with the US military back in Afghanistan, has been searching for his family with the help of Stella Chiarelli, a volunteer with United Rescues, an organization that tries to find missing refugees.
It’s been a frustrating search.
On this morning, Haidar and Chiarelli are taking the ferry from Istanbul to the city of Bursa, Turkey, close to where Haidar’s boat went under. They’re going back to a morgue they visited the year before. Before, they were looking for any…