No place left for drowned refugees to be buried

As ceme­tery on eastern Aegean is­land of Lesvos runs out of grave plots in pau­per’s sec­tion, mayor says he’s look­ing for al­ter­na­tive op­tions

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY KAROLINA TAGARIS

He stood in the mud, crows caw­ing over­head, point­ing at un­marked graves. “Here’s a mother with her baby. And here’s another young woman. Over there, that’s a 60-year-old man.”

Buried be­neath low mounds of earth, fac­ing Mecca, lay Afghan, Iraqi and Syr­ian refugees who drowned this sum­mer in the Aegean Sea try­ing to reach Europe in flimsy in­flat­able boats.

Scan­ning the area, Christos Mavrakidis, a somber, hard­ened man who looks af­ter one of the main ceme­ter­ies on the Greek is­land of Lesvos, listed the years of other deaths: “2013, 2014, 2015.”

Now there is no room left in the nar­row plot of land in the pau­per’s sec­tion of Aghios Pan­telei­monas ceme­tery, close to where the colon­naded tombs of wealthy Greeks are built in the clas­si­cal Greek style, and flow­ers adorn lav­ish mar­ble graves.

“Some­thing must be done,” he said. “They are a lot. They are too many.”

No one can say where the next bod­ies will be buried.

Nearly half a mil­lion peo­ple, mostly Syr­i­ans, Afghans and Iraqis flee­ing war and per­se­cu­tion, have made the dan­ger­ous jour­ney to Europe this year. Al­most 3,000 have died, the United Na­tions refugee agency es­ti­mates.

Just 4.4 kilo­me­ters off the Turk­ish coast, Lesvos, Greece’s third-big­gest is­land and pop­u­lar with tourists, is one of the pre­ferred en­try points for mi­grants into the Euro­pean Union.

Ar­rivals surged in late sum­mer to some­times thou­sands a day as peo­ple rushed to beat au­tumn storms that make the Aegean even more treach­er­ous. The num­ber of buri­als at Aghios Pan­telei­monas has also risen. More than three dozen mi­grants are buried in a tiny, dusty plot on a hill over­look­ing the is­land. Four were buried there last week alone.

Some of the makeshift, earthen graves bear a small mar­ble plaque with a name in paint or marker: “Saad 4-92015.” Oth­ers state sim­ply: “Un­known 25-8-2015,” “Un­known 28-8-2015,” “No 14 5-1-2013.” The most re­cent graves lack any mark­ing.

Mavrakidis placed his hand over his mouth and nose, the air filled with what he called “the stench of death” ris­ing from the open grave of a young Iraqi man whose body was ex­humed that morn­ing af­ter his fam­ily man­aged to trace him through DNA.

Many more dead have never been found. Lo­cals say fish­er­men some­times dump bod­ies back into the sea, like fish they are not per­mit­ted to catch, to avoid hav­ing to hand them over to the author­i­ties and face ques­tion­ing and bu­reau­cracy.

The im­pact of the huge mi­gra­tion flow into Europe is vis­i­ble across Lesvos, an is­land with a history of mostly Greek refugees who fled Asia Mi­nor in the 1920s. Restau­rants and shops now have menus and signs in Ara­bic. Cafes are full of refugees charg­ing mo­bile phones.

The long shore­line near the air­port has turned bright or­ange from hun­dreds of dis­carded life jack­ets. But nowhere is their un­cer­tain fate starker than at Aghios Pan­telei­monas, pa­tron saint of the sick and des­ti­tute.

Ev­ery vil­lage on the is­land has its own ceme­tery but spa­ces are lim­ited to less than a dozen for the lo­cals. Refugees were buried at Aghios Pan­telei­monas also be­cause it was well­guarded, even from stray dogs who roam at night, Mavrakidis said.

Lo­cal re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­cuse the author­i­ties of do­ing lit­tle to ad­dress the space prob­lem. Efi Lat­soudi, a vol­un­teer who helps or­ga­nize fu­ner­als for refugees, says she is tired of hear­ing “We have no bud­get. It’s not our re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Even the is­land’s morgue com­plains it is run­ning out of space to keep the bod­ies, push­ing for more buri­als, she said.

“It’s some­one’s re­spon­si­bil­ity. And if it isn’t, some­one should claim it,” Lat­soudi said.

The is­land’s mayor, Stavros Gali­nos, says he has never made money an is­sue de­spite be­ing stretched fi­nan­cially be­cause of the coun­try’s pro­longed eco­nomic cri­sis.

“This is a hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sue and I would never weigh it on the same scale as the fi­nan­cial is­sues,” he said at his of­fice over­look­ing the port from which thou­sands of refugees de­part for the main­land ev­ery day.

“There’s a prob­lem and we’re try­ing to solve it. Peo­ple are drown­ing ev­ery day so we’re look­ing for space,” he said. “Not only do we have to man­age liv­ing mi­grants, we have to man­age the dead as well.”

Afghan refugee Mo­ham­mad Talib Jabarkhail, who sought help from the same as­so­ci­a­tion that or­ga­nizes fu­ner­als and prayers for the dead, was among the lucky ones who reached Europe alive.

Some of his friends were killed in a sus­pected US air strike on an Afghan hos­pi­tal run by aid group Medecins Sans Fron­tieres (MSF) in Kun­duz, he said.

“I es­caped from Afghanistan be­cause I was tar­geted. ISIS [Is­lamic State in­sur­gents] and the Tal­iban threat­ened me three times,” said Jabarkhail, a 30- The In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion has es­ti­mated that more than 3,000 peo­ple have now died while try­ing to cross the Mediter­ranean to Europe this year. Spokesman Joel Mill­man of the Geneva-based in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal agency said yesterday that 3,103 peo­ple have died in 2015 dur­ing the cross­ing – more than 100 of whom have only been recorded now be­cause of in­ter­nal “house­keep­ing” of the sta­tis­tics in re­cent days. IOM said more than 593,000 peo­ple have crossed this year – of whom 453,000 trav­eled from Tur­key to Greece, which has faced a mas­sive in­flux of peo­ple from Syria. Ninety per­cent of the deaths this year were on the high Mediter­ranean, mainly be­tween Libya and Italy. The IOM says that those ar­riv­ing in Italy are much more di­verse, with large con­tin­gents from at least 16 coun­tries. year-old com­mu­nity worker and women’s rights ac­tivist who worked for for­eign NGOs.

The three-week trip to Europe through Pak­istan, Iran and Tur­key with his cousin and nephew cost 2,500 dol­lars in bribes to var­i­ous peo­ple, in­clud­ing a man code-named “Red Ap­ple.”

They were shot at by Ira­nian po­lice and kid­napped and robbed on the Ira­nian-Turk­ish bor­der, leav­ing him with no money to con­tinue his jour­ney to his de­sired des­ti­na­tion: Ger­many.

His wife and four young chil­dren are left be­hind, wait­ing.

Like oth­ers who set off on this dan­ger­ous jour­ney, Jabarkhail said he was well aware of the risk of death on the way. “When I started my jour­ney I had two op­tions: to reach Europe or to die. This is the re­al­ity,” he said.

Christos Mavrakidis, an em­ployee of the Myti­lene Char­ity In­sti­tu­tions, ad­justs a tombstone on the grave of a mi­grant who drowned at sea, on Lesvos, last week (left). Right: Flow­ers are placed on the grave of an uniden­ti­fied mi­grant who drowned at sea dur­ing an at­tempt to cross from Tur­key, at the Aghios Pan­telei­monas ceme­tery on Lesvos.

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