'It's a horrible experience': Former refugee hurts for 4 people found dead near Manitoba-U.S. border

A man who lost his fingers to frostbite when crossing the international border into Manitoba on a frigid December night six years ago is anguished for a family of four found dead this week in those same snowbound fields.

'So unfortunate there was that kind of desperation that some people felt to take those chances,' says reeve

Seidu Mohammed, seen in this file photo in 2017, said he is anguished for four people whose frozen bodies were found in Manitoba near the United States border this week. Mohammed lost his fingers to frostbite when crossing the same border just over five years ago. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A man who lost his fingers to frostbite when crossing the international border into Manitoba on a frigid December night just over five years ago is anguished for four people found dead this week in those same snowbound fields.

"I can't imagine those families, the kind of experience that they had when they couldn't make it. I can't imagine because it is very horrible," said Seidu Mohammed. "My condolences to the families."

The bodies of a man, a woman and a baby, who are believed to be members of the same family, were found together on Wednesday afternoon in a field east of Emerson, Man., and about a dozen metres from the international border.

The body of a teenage boy was found a few metres away, RCMP said during a news conference on Thursday.

The investigation into the deaths is now part of a larger probe into a human smuggling operation, said John Stanley, a special agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, in documents filed on Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

Prior to the bodies being discovered in Manitoba, a U.S. Border Patrol in North Dakota stopped a 15-passenger van just south of the border. It was being driven by 47-year-old Steve Shand of Florida, who is now in custody and charged with human smuggling.

A border marker is shown just outside of Emerson, Man., on Thursday. American investigators believe the deaths of four people, including a baby and a teen, whose bodies were found in Manitoba near the United States border are linked to a larger human smuggling operation. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Court documents allege he was with two undocumented foreign nationals from India. While Shand and the passengers were being taken to the border patrol station in North Dakota, police came across five more Indian nationals walking south.

They said they had walked across the border expecting to be picked up by someone, and estimated they had been walking around for more than 11 hours.

Little is known about the Indian nationals taken into custody in the U.S. 

Court documents say they spoke limited or no English, but are fluent in Gujarati, a language spoken in western India.

Two of the people in the group had to taken to hospital because of injuries they suffered in the extreme cold.

A woman with the group stopped breathing several times as she was transported to hospital, and will require partial amputation of her hand, according to the court documents.

A man was also hospitalized for frostbite but was later released.

Snow drifts are shown in a farmer's field just outside of Emerson, Man., as the sun set on Thursday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"We can feel someone's pain if they are feeling that kind of cold because we have had that kind of pain before, and that pain is not going away. It's a horrible experience," Mohammed said.

He and a friend, Razak Iyal, crossed through endlessly snowy fields on Christmas Eve 2016 under the cover of night, avoiding official border checkpoints in order to make a refugee claim in Canada.

Originally from Ghana, their asylum claims were rejected in the United States before they came to Canada.

'We'd be dead' without help: border crosser

Ill-dressed dressed for the cold, the men spent about seven hours outside after losing their way. Their fingers and some toes later had to be amputated because the tissue had frozen.

Razak Iyal, left, and Seidu Mohammed walked across the international border into Manitoba on a cold Christmas Eve in 2016. (CBC)

When they finally reached a highway, the men tried for hours to flag down trucks passing them by, until one stopped and called for medical help.

"Without the Good Samaritan who helped us, we'd be dead," said Mohammed, who now lives in Manitoba. "That's something that we always run through our heads. We were terrified."

Dave Carlson, the reeve of the Rural Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, described the area where the bodies were found as a frontier of uninterrupted grain farms and pasture lands.

"There's really not much else. I can see how you can definitely get into a really bad situation quickly in a remote area like that," he said. "You can become disoriented very quickly. There's not a lot of landmarks out there, there's really nothing to aim for.

"It's dangerous at the best of times, even for a local that gets into distress. It's just so unfortunate there was that kind of desperation that some people felt to take those chances."

Illegal crossings in the area have dropped significantly in recent years, though four or five years ago, many asylum seekers made such crossings into Manitoba. Many would make their way into Emerson, Carlson said.

Dave Carlson, reeve of Emerson-Franklin, said there are not many landmarks out in the remote fields of southern Manitoba, which means people can become disoriented very quickly. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"There was a wave of migrants in the community, people knocking on doors, things like that, large groups," he said.

"Our emergency services was running daily, dealing with calls for other folks in distress or just dealing with the situation."

At the peak, RCMP and other responders "were maxed to the limit." But the wave has since subsided, Carlson said, adding that's why Wednesday's incident was such a shock.

"It's just so tragic. It's such a sad story," he said, "Definitely not welcome news at any time."

'Mind blowing': Trudeau

On the national stage, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered both sympathy and anger on Friday in Ottawa.

"This is absolutely a mind-blowing incident. It is absolutely tragic to see a family die in this fashion," he said.

"They're victims of human traffickers, of misinformation, and of people who took advantage of their desire to build a better life."

Rema Jamous Imseis, the Canada representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also released a statement, saying "the UNHCR deeply regrets this tragic loss of life.

"Whatever the circumstances, no one should ever have to choose such a perilous journey."

Shand faces a preliminary and detention hearing scheduled for Jan. 24 in the U.S.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Wendy Parker and The Associate Press