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Pakistan village mourns 24 feared dead in Greek migrant tragedy

Death hangs over the Pakistan village of Bandli like a shroud, as residents absorb news that as many as 24 young local men may be among hundreds feared drowned in last week's Greek migrant boat tragedy.

In this picture taken on June 20, 2023, relatives of migrants, who went missing after an overloaded trawler capsized and sank in the Ionian Sea, wait to provide DNA samples at a hospital in Bandli village, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. – Death hangs over the Pakistan village of Bandli like a shroud, as residents absorb news that as many as 24 young local men may be among hundreds feared drowned in last week’s Greek migrant boat tragedy. (Photo by Sajjad QAYYUM / AFP)

Death hangs over the Pakistan village of Bandli like a shroud, as residents absorb news that as many as 24 young local men may be among hundreds feared drowned in last week’s Greek migrant boat tragedy.

The village, home to around 15,000, was in mourning as relatives offered up DNA samples to identify bodies among the 82 recovered from last Wednesday’s shipwreck in the Ionian Sea.

A procession of visitors came and went from the homes of families in distress, 95 kilometres (60 miles) southeast of Islamabad in Pakistan administered Kashmir.

Parents sat listlessly in the street and funeral prayers were not yet held, as the faintest hope still lingered.

Shahnaz Bibi said she spoke to her son Inaam Shafaat, 20, by phone a day before the overcrowded and rusty trawler set sail from Libya into Mediterranean waters on the world’s deadliest migrant route.

“At night he told me that the weather was not clear. I told him not to go on the boat, but he wouldn’t listen to me,” said Bibi, in her 50s, having her DNA sampled at a local hospital.

“He said, ‘Mother I leave you in the protection of Allah. Pray for me’,” she told AFP, her voice hoarse from weeping as she dabbed tears away with her shawl.

– Send another son –
Authorities in Europe still have no clear idea how many people were aboard the boat when it sank — estimates range from 400 to over 700 — but likely hundreds came from Pakistan, largely from the most populous Punjab province and Pakistan administered Kashmir.

An official from the country’s Federal Investigation Agency told AFP more than 75 families have so far registered a missing relative believed to be on board.

Sarfraz Khan Virk, a senior official from the FIA in Lahore, told reporters that following previous such disasters, many families have refused to speak to authorities.

“They said that we want to send a second son and we will suffer if you file a case,” he said.

“There are families who had sent one brother to Italy and after a failed attempt with the second brother, want to send the third one. So we have many issues and the people are not cooperating with us.”

The country is in the grip of a staggering economic downturn with runaway inflation, industry and imports hobbled, and a tumbling rupee sapping families’ abilities to pay their way.

Pakistan administered Kashmir — where Bandli nestles among lush rolling hills — has historically been a springboard for migrants, increasingly driven to make desperate odysseys escaping hardship.

The eastern region hosts a thriving black market of human smugglers and Islamabad so far says 15 have been arrested for alleged links to the tragedy.

“What happened to our brother shouldn’t happen to anyone else. Human trafficking has been on the rise, it will not stop,” said Waheed Wazir, 38, whose younger brother Imran, 32, is missing.

“The human trafficking agents who are arrested should not be released. They should be publicly punished so nobody dares to do such a thing in the future.”

The assistant commissioner of the local district Sardar Mushtaq Ahmad confirmed 24 people had been reported missing from the area.

Migrant journeys from Pakistan to Europe are perilous. Travellers often have only patchy communication with relatives and the illegal nature of the trip encourages them to lay low.

With the majority of the passengers still reportedly lost at sea, the Bandli families cling to the precious final words they heard from their relatives.

“My son had told me that they were boarding them on the boat. The weather was not good,” said Tasleem Bibi, 48, already grieving her 20-year-old son Akash Gulzar.

“His voice gradually sank and he could not speak further.”

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