Agony for family of Pakistan hockey ex-pro feared dead in Italy migrant tragedy

For the family of Shahida Raza, the Pakistani former hockey star feared to be among the dozens of migrants who drowned off southern Italy this week, the wait for her body is piling on the agony.

Raza competed in international championships with the Pakistani women's team in 2012 and 2013, and was once described as the "linchpin" of the side.

But a wave of tragedies in recent years left her desperately seeking the money and opportunity to get life-saving treatment for her three-year-old son, who was diagnosed with a condition that causes paralysis.

Her options in Pakistan exhausted, she left her child at home and made her way legally to Turkey last year, her family told AFP.

On Sunday, she boarded the ill-fated wooden boat carrying some 150 passengers on the central Mediterranean migrant route, the deadliest in the world.

"Shahida was constantly in touch with the family and I even spoke to her at 6:30 in the morning on Sunday, around an hour or so before the tragic incident," her elder sister Sadia Raza told AFP on Thursday at the family home in the city of Quetta in southwestern Pakistan.

"She told me that she was fine and on a boat."

The overloaded vessel broke up and sank in stormy seas, with bodies, shoes and debris washing up along a long stretch of shoreline. Nearly 70 people are confirmed dead.

With the help of an acquaintance who lives in Italy, Raza's body was identified using photographs and a treasured pendant that was still around her neck, her family said.

They have yet to receive official word about her death from Pakistani or Italian authorities, or when her body will be repatriated.

"The whole family, particularly our old mother, is experiencing agony with every passing day," her sister said, her fingers tracing the dozens of medals, trophies and team photographs that adorn a cabinet in their home.

Raza's marriage had broken down in the years following her son's birth. He is now with his father's family.

- Tragedies -

Raza began playing hockey in 2003, competing professionally until 2019 when she turned to coaching.

It is still unusual for women to play sport in deeply conservative Pakistan where families often forbid it.

But Raza found solace in hockey, away from the troubles faced by her marginalised community, the Hazara.

The mainly Shia Muslim ethnic minority has faced frequent attacks -- including suicide bombings -- by Sunni Islamist militants, especially in Quetta.

"Shahida was a kind-hearted person, talkative, jolly and always had a smile on her face," said her friend and fellow hockey player Sumiya, who did not want to give her last name.

"But the tragedies of her personal life, her son's illness, her divorce and unemployment changed her. She became silent and liked to be alone."

Raza had appealed to the government and Pakistani sports federation for financial help, and visited top hospitals in the country.

But doctors told her there was no treatment available in the country.

"After that, Shahida was determined to look at possibilities in European countries to get her son treated," Sumiya said.

"She started living for her only son with an aim to get him treated and in that mission, she lost her life."

Pakistan is in the grip of a gargantuan economic downturn, with soaring inflation and widespread factory shutdowns.

An official from the human trafficking task force at Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency told AFP this week that 40,000 people try to enter Europe illegally every year.

"The numbers are increasing with each day due to our deteriorating economic situation and lack of jobs," the official said on condition of anonymity.

There are approximately 2.2 million Pakistanis in Europe, and Italy is the preferred destination for migrants from the South Asian nation, according to a 2022 survey by the Mixed Migration Centre.

Most use smugglers to transit through Iran, Turkey and Greece on their trip, the report said.

Italian police have arrested three "alleged smugglers" following Sunday's wreck, including two Pakistanis and a Turkish national.

mak-ecl/fox/qan/mtp