There was no changing their minds.
The two cousins, Imran Wazir, 23, and Abdul Salam, 25, made that clear to their families this spring when they decided to leave their village in northeastern Pakistan and pay smugglers to reach Europe. They felt they had no other good options, their relatives said.
A recent death in the family had put the burden of being the breadwinner on Mr. Wazir. And Mr. Salam had been practically attached at his cousin’s hip their entire lives, his family said. If Imran was going, Abdul was too.
So late one night in March, they hugged their fathers and brothers goodbye and set off on the journey, across hundreds of miles, by land, air and sea, through four countries and driven by a dream of reaching a fifth. It was the last time their relatives would see them alive.
Relatives say Mr. Wazir and Mr. Salam were two of the more than 100 Pakistanis killed when a fishing boat, overloaded with as many as 750 migrants, capsized in the Mediterranean last week, the deadliest shipwreck off Greece in a decade. Locals say around 28 of those on board were from their hometown, Bandli, a vibrant green stretch of valleys along the border with India, in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir.
Now, as families wait for word about their relatives, a sense of grief and anger has settled over the village like a dark cloud. Walking down the streets, locals can hear the moans and sobs of heartbroken mothers. Echoing out of the mosque is the near constant recitation of the Quran, as fathers plead with God to somehow keep their lost sons alive.
“I have not seen such a sad day in the village in my 60 years of life,” said Muhammad Majeed, a shopkeeper. “It’s like doomsday — the village has lost so many young, hard-working sons.”
The area, home to around 10,000 people, has a long history of young men migrating abroad. Today, nearly every family has at least one son who is in the Gulf or Europe, sending a portion of their salaries home each month, locals say.
For decades, as India and Pakistan fought over the contested area of Kashmir, the town faced frequent cross-border shelling, destroying homes and taking lives. Leaving was a way for young men to escape that violence and support their families.
In recent years, the fervor to migrate has only grown, they say. Pakistan’s yearslong economic crisis has sent the price of basic goods soaring. Decent jobs have all but disappeared. And stories of men who made it to Europe have splashed across social media, encouraging others already eager to go.
People feel “there is no future and certainty in Pakistan anymore,” said Toqeer Gilani, a political leader in the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir. “That has been gradually taking hold among the youth.”
Smugglers have preyed on that sense of instability. They roam the villages, Mr. Gilani said, promising young men a prosperous future in Europe in exchange for a lump sum of $7,000 to $14,000. In recent days, the Pakistani authorities have made arrests and accused over a dozen people in the trafficking related to the capsized boat.
Hundreds of young men in Bandli resort to the smugglers each year. Among those on the boat that sank last week was Muhammad Yasir, 24, father of a 1-year-old daughter whose brothers had slowly saved up $7,000 to help him reach Europe. Another was Muhammad Aslam, a chatty 26-year-old who worked in his father’s grocery store.
A third was Shifaat Ali, 18, who left in March, promising he would go by plane to assuage his father’s concerns. He called weeks later from Libya, begging his family to send money for a boat. Terrified for his safety in Libya, they obliged.
Perhaps no two in the group were closer, though, than the cousins, Mr. Wazir and Mr. Salam. They grew up next to each other, surrounded by fields of maize, wheat and rice, and relatives described them as almost inseparable.
The youngest of seven brothers, Mr. Wazir earned a reputation as a rambunctious student who made friends easily. Mr. Salam was quieter, but gained fame in the regional cricket league, where he earned the nickname “Jayasuriya” — after a famous Sri Lankan cricketer.
When they graduated from college, they were set to go their own ways for the first time. Mr. Wazir left for Saudi Arabia, seeking work as a day laborer. Mr. Salam submitted military enlistment papers, encouraged by his father, a retired low-ranking officer.
When Mr. Wazir called to say he had work for his cousin just outside Riyadh, though, Mr. Salam abandoned his plans and set out to join him. They spent just over a year there before returning to the village and opening shops next to each other.
But they struggled to earn decent profits, and this year, Mr. Wazir’s eldest brother, the family’s breadwinner as a laborer in the United Arab Emirates, died at 52 from a heart attack.
Suddenly, Mr. Wazir was racked with anxiety, relatives said. He worried about his aging father’s worsening health. He asked what would the family do if they needed to pay hospital bills, and what if they could not afford care to keep him alive.
“He used to say that ‘If I go to Europe I could earn 300 euros a month — that’s more than enough money to pay for doctors for my father and take care of the rest of the family. They won’t have to worry,’” said his cousin, Abid Rajorvi.
So Mr. Wazir hatched a plan, relatives said: He messaged some young men who had recently posted online about reaching Italy, and got the contact for a smuggler. He and Mr. Salam borrowed money from friends and pooled their savings to each pay the $8,100 smuggler fee. For weeks, their fathers tried to dissuade them, calling the journey too dangerous.
But they were determined.
So late one night in March, they boarded a bus for a three-day journey to Karachi, a port city in southern Pakistan. Then they flew to the United Arab Emirates, then Egypt and Libya. They sent smiling selfies along the way, according to Mr. Rajorvi, and raved about the nice weather and markets in Cairo.
But when they reached Libya, their calls changed. This month, they told Mr. Rajorvi that they had been arrested by the Libyan authorities, and only released after a week in detention. They said they had lost around 50 pounds each since arriving in Libya, and sent photos on WhatsApp looking gaunt. The only assurance they offered their relatives was that they would be in Italy soon.
Days later, news of the migrant ship that sank reached the village. People raced to the bazaar — the only place with good cell reception — and began frantically calling loved ones en route to Europe. They checked Facebook for news. They sent text after text to the smugglers, receiving no answer.
Then one resident received a call from a Pakistani man who had survived the wreck. Around 27 others from the town were in the boat with him, he said. None had survived. The bazaar erupted in wails.
With confirmation of the deaths of the cousins and others probably days or weeks away, many families are now stuck in a devastating limbo: praying for a miracle, but knowing that the chances fade with each passing day.
“We are Muslims, we believe that death is inevitable,” said Muhammad Mubashir, whose 18-year-old cousin is believed to have died on the ship. “But without burying your loved ones with their own hands, our family will never get peace.”