The untold refugee stories on the edge of Europe
Since the beginning of this millenium, hundreds of refugees have perished in their attempt to cross the Evros river, separating Greece and Turkey. While many people are aware of the reoccurring tragedies of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the faith of Evros’ victims remain a relatively uncovered story.
Our journey starts at the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis, the largest city on the Greek side of the river. In the hospital's dingy basement lies the Forensic Department that receives all the retrieved bodies found by Greek authorities.
A tall, gaunt, grey-haired man in a black polo neck sweater welcomes us in his office with a fuming cigaret balancing between his fingers. Doctor Pavlos Pavlidis is quick to skip the introductional small talk. He unfolds a map of Northern Greece on his desk while marking a line with his pen.
“The border is about 196 kilometers (121 miles) and it’s the river itself that constitutes the border with Turkey,” he says with a heavy and charismatic Mediterranean accent.
For 18 years Doctor Pavlidis has been in charge of the Forensic Department at the hospital. During this period, he has attempted to identify the bodies of 359 refugees, who were found dead in and around the Evros river.
I only have this necklace and his DNA to identify him. Nothing else.
He takes a seat and begins scrolling through case files on his computer before halting at one case that looks particularly macabre. “This man died from post-mortal injuries. The birds ate his eyes after he was dead,” he explains. “The police found his passport and 900 dollars. He was Palestinian according to his passport, but we are now waiting for the Document Authorization Center in Athens to confirm whether this is a real passport or not,” Pavlidis says.
So far, the professor has received three dead refugees this year. He opens the file of the first victim of 2018. The only remaining personal belonging to identify the individual is a silver necklace with a heart-shaped pendant reading “heart to you”. He shows us another picture of a decayed corpse from last year, that had been in the river for at least 30 days. The man’s face is obliterated from being in the water too long. “The identification of such a person is difficult or impossible,” Pavlidis says while shrugging his shoulders. “It’s very difficult to identify most of the people, because we find them after several months in the water and they are unrecognizable,” he explains.
These words somewhat explain the challenge of Doctor Pavlidis’ job as a medical examiner. He’s not only a doctor, but also an investigator to some extent, who sometimes seems to be on an almost impossible mission to identify the unidentifiable. Nevertheless, he has managed to identify 40 percent of the refugees who have drowned in the river since he took over the Forensic Department at the hospital in year 2000.
The majority of the 359 retrieved corpses died by drowning in the river or by hypothermia after crossing it. Another common cause of death was landmines, until the border area was cleared of explosives back in 2008.
“These numbers are only from the Greek side. We don’t have any information about how many people have been found on the Turkish side of the river, because we don’t communicate with the Turkish authorities,” Doctor Pavlos Pavlidis says, adding that he supposes the numbers are around the same on the neighbouring side.
On his bookshelf, Pavlidis keeps a white box with personal belongings of the river’s victims, containing everything from bracelets to credit cards and smartphones. “When an individual is unrecognizable, I collect these personal belongings or look at characteristics such as tattoos, because family members will recognize these things,” Pavlidis explains.
These days, the Greek coroner doesn’t receive as many corpses as he did when the refugee crisis was at its highest in 2014 to 2016. Back then, he didn’t have enough space for all the bodies at the hospital’s morgue and he had to place the refugees in containers stationed on the hospital’s parking lot.
Despite refraining from expressing any personal sentiments or feelings, when talking about the victims, one case in particular seems to have imprinted itself in Pavlidis’ remembrance.
Before we leave the Forensic Department, he shows us the case file of a five year old Syrian girl, Rand al-Hayek, who was killed after initially crossing the river with her parents and siblings. The family of six were walking by the train tracks to find a town with shelter. They didn’t hear the speeding cargo train coming and it had no lights on in the dark to warn them. In a split second, another tragedy had occurred on the border. Rand al-Hayek was later buried in a Greek Muslim village further north.
Asked about how such cases affect him on a personal level, Pavlidis leans forward on his desk and looks at us:
“First of all it’s work. I love my job. Every case has its own unique history. But I don’t think about the cases, when I go home. I keep a professional distance,” he says formally, before leaning back in his armchair pausing for a few seconds, with a newly lit fuming cigaret balancing between his fingers:
“The only difficult thing for me is the children. The children are always the worst”.
A graveyard in the mountains
Late in the evening, we reach the northern mountain village of Sidiro, where deceased refugees are buried. We encounter a villager, who agrees to take us in his jeep to the graveyard located on the top of a steep hill overlooking the village.
The gravestones are carved with Arabic writing and half-covered in snow. We find the gravestone of a Palestinian man from the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus and a Syrian man from Aleppo. Some gravestones have no names written on them. These are the unidentified refugees, we understand from the hand gestures of the local villager.
Dusk is settling on the cemetery and he calls the local Arabic-speaking Imam, who invites us over for tea. Returning from the hilltop, we are welcomed by Imam Abdullah Sherif, who lives next to a Turkish-styled mosque of which he is in charge, at the center of the sparsely populated village.
Imam Abdullah Sherif is from a family of Islamic scholars living in the Northeastern Greek mountain village of Sidiro. The Sherif family has been trusted by Greek authorities with the task of burying the victims of the Evros river, a majority of whom are muslims. In the past two decades, the family has buried around 300 refugees, most of them unidentified men.
I will do everything in my power to help you.
The refugees, who manage to cross the border alive, are often met by helping hands from the Muslim villagers. Shelter and food is offered to refugees before their journey onwards.
“In this town, we live, we witness and we are confronted with different affecting cases,” says Abdullah Sherif. “Because I lived and studied in Syria, I simply can’t refuse Syrians who come and ask me for help. I tell them, I will carry you on my head,” he says, using an Arabic expression of humility. “I will do everything in my power to help you”.
At the mercy of the authorities
From the loudspeakers of the mosque, the call to prayer interrupts our conversation. We follow Imam Sherif heading to lead the evening-prayer for around 30 villagers attending tonight.
After the prayer, Imam Sherif, standing in his white Islamic scholarly garments with a white turban on his head, continues where we left.
“We once received the corpse of a young man, who had been shot in the back. The bullet had gone through his chest. He appeared to be from Bangladesh,” Sherif says. “I was extremely affected by the scene and I haven’t performed corporal ablutions since then" [Islamic showering ritual of the deceased].
Sherif doesn’t know why the man was shot. Both Turkish and Greek authorities have been accused of shooting at refugees and migrants before, but with no further information about the case, any notion of blame remains speculative.
Despite his good relations with Greek authorities, Imam Abdullah Sherif further expresses his concerns about illegal deportations of Syrians back to Turkey, also known as ‘forced pushbacks’.
“If a Syrian is caught in Komotini, he will get asylum. But if a Syrian is caught by the authorities in this area, he will be sent back against his will. I am truly baffled by this. I met a Syrian man who had been caught and deported back to Turkey five times by the Greek authorities,” he explains.
Greek Police has regularly been accused of systematically forcing back refugees in the border area with Turkey, which is illegal under international law.
The Turban Times and Refugee.Today have also spoken on the phone with two refugees living in Germany who had both experienced a forced pushback. They were caught by Greek police in broad daylight and turned over to the Turks at the border crossing by night. They wished to remain anonymous due to their pending asylum cases.
WINTER IS COMING
On this journey to Europe’s outlying border, The Turban Times and Refugee.Today followed the trail of refugees who lost their lives in the river separating the European Union and Turkey.
Standing at the edge of the river, the water flows slowly, almost peacefully. An old Arabic saying goes: Don’t fear the river with heavy currents, fear the one that is silent.
If there is any truth to this old aphorism, the Evros is a living proof of it. It’s hard to believe that so many lives have perished in its depth. So many stories have gone untold. Disappeared and forever forgotten in the merciless streams and the muddy bottom of the Evros river.
While we often hear of the thousands of refugees, who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, countless people have been killed as well, trying to cross this natural border of Europe.
Just two weeks before we arrived, a Turkish school teacher and her two children, fleeing Erdogan’s crackdown on Gülen-supporters, drowned in the Evros along with five others. This scene repeated itself in July, when another Turkish mother drowned along her three children. The stories only made it to local Greek and Turkish newspapers.
According to Dr. Pavlos Pavlidis’ estimates around 1300 people have lost their lives in the Evros. Many of the bodies remain unrecovered on the swampy bottom of the river.
In March, when summer was approaching, he told us that this was a good thing for refugees crossing the border: “People don’t die in the river in the summer, because the water levels are low. And nobody dies from hypothermia when it’s hot, so most of the people die in the winter,”
Now a new winter is approaching and another high season of tragedies is slowly coming closer at Europe’s river of death.
Since we visited the Alexandroupolis morgue in March this year, Dr. Pavlidis has received 21 bodies from the river making the total number rise to 380 recovered corpses on the Greek side of the river since year 2000.