Evros River turns a graveyard for Syrians on their migration route to Europe
Enab Baladi – Fatima al-Mohammad
Migrants flow along the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece via small boats transporting them from the Balkans to southeast Europe. On their journey towards the dream of reaching Europe, there are those who lose contact with their families at the Evros River, also known as Maritsa, amidst uncertainty surrounding their fate.
Through groups of missing persons on Facebook, Syrians post pictures of their children and information about the history of the loss of contact with them on the way to Europe, hoping to obtain information about their fate.
Ayman Hadla, a Turkey-based Syrian refugee, told Enab Baladi that his brother Ahmed, 23, decided to leave for Europe in search of a better life in September 2021 and set off with his cousin Omran and a group of people from Turkish territory towards the Greek border.
Ayman added that communication with his brother was cut off after he arrived at the Evros River on September 9 at one o’clock at night, and after days of searching and publishing information and pictures of his brother Ahmed, he was able to communicate with someone who told him that he was in the same group with his brother and that the group was ambushed by the Greek guards as it crosses into the Greek bank.
The migrants were terrified while on the boat, and they began jumping right and left into the river. Some of them returned to the Turkish bank, and the other part drowned. Some of them surrendered themselves to the border guards, according to the witness who claimed to have seen Ayman’s brother and cousin surrender themselves to the Greek guards.
Ayman’s brother did not have a phone, so Ayman tried to call his cousin Omran’s number periodically, but it was out of coverage until the messages reached Omran on September 20.
“Young men called me on the phone and told me that the device was in the pocket of a person who drowned in the river, from which they took the SIM card, and they photographed for me the corpse that wore the same clothes as 25-year-old Omran, with completely distorted features,” according to what Ayman Hadla told Enab Baladi.
The young men assured Ayman that they had conducted a search and had not found any other bodies. They buried Omran’s body on the border of the river from the Turkish side and left a mark on the grave so that his family could find his remains.
Ayman went with the Turkish forces to the grave and transferred the body to Edirne Governmental Hospital, after verifying it, and completed the procedures for burying his cousin Omran in Istanbul city.
He began searching for his brother Ahmed in prisons and hospitals in Edirne, Karakali, and Istanbul, but since his brother didn’t carry the Temporary Protection Identification Document (Kimlik) with him, this made the search operations difficult.
Ayman hired a lawyer in Turkey and Greece in the hope of finding any lead that might connect him to his brother, but to no avail.
Human loss brought them together
Through search groups for missing persons on Facebook, Ayman communicated with the Syrian young man Salah, residing in Germany, as he also lost contact with his brother, who disappeared in the same way.
The two young men exchanged information and pictures about their brothers and agreed to search together. Ayman searched in Turkish hospitals and prisons, and Salah searched in Greek hospitals and prisons.
Salah traveled to Greece and hired a lawyer to be able to search Greek prisons and hospitals.
He went to the Greek Alexandroupolis Hospital, which is located in the border area with Turkey, and began searching for pictures of bodies or the remains of unidentified bodies of refugees who had died in the river or the Greek forest, but he did not find anything. Salah looked between pictures of corpses for an image of his brother’s body or of Ahmed, but he didn’t find anything.
Ayman mentioned that he has a brother who has been detained in the regime’s prisons since 2015 and whose fate remains unknown. Ahmed is the second brother he has lost, and he and his family live in the hope that his brother Ahmed will be alive and return to their home one day.
The documentary “The Nameless Dead,” which was broadcast by the French channel Arte, revealed that “thousands of migrants risk their lives by crossing the Evros River, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, and many drown or die of hypothermia in the attempt.”
When bodies wash up on the riverbanks, identifying them is difficult, forensic scientist Pavlos Pavlidis tries to find out these people’s names so that their families can be informed, according to Arte.
Dr. Pavlidis, who is responsible for examining every deceased refugee recovered from the Evros River, stated that he receives requests from all over the world for people searching for their loved ones who were lost in the river.
Relatives of missing persons send him photos and video clips taken a short time ago or share with the doctor the geographical locations of the place where their loved one went missing so that he may be able to help them.
Pavlidis, a professor of forensic medicine who has worked at Alexandroupolis Hospital for 22 years in the Evros border region with Turkey, said that at the end of 2022, nearly 600 bodies of river victims arrived at the hospital’s morgue, only from the Greek side.
In theory, he expected there to be the same number on the Turkish side, that is, 1,200 to 1,500 bodies of river victims, according to Pavlidis.
He added that there are more requests from people searching for their relatives in the morgues of Alexandroupolis Hospital.
The bodies that remain unidentified or whose family members do not take them if they are unable to bear the costs of transporting the dead are buried in a cemetery specially built for foreign Muslims in the border area, which includes gravestones, some bearing names, and some of unknown people from all over the world such as Syria and Somalia and Afghanistan.
The “Maritsa” or Evros River looks like a snake, according to the description of the head of the Greek Border Guard Union, Valantis Gialamas, and extends over a distance of 200 kilometers to form the only land border between Turkey and Greece, and the authorities completely prohibit entry to the region.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), nearly 3,500 people died in 2021 while trying to enter the European Union via the sea and land borders between Turkey and Greece, making it the “deadliest” year for migrants in this region since 2018, according to the UN Migration Agency.
The United Nations reported that, based on testimonies collected by IOM teams in both countries, there are reports of continued mass pushbacks and expulsions and the use of excessive force against people moving along the road between Turkey and Greece.
Forensic scientist Pavlos Pavlidis described the Evros River as dangerous, wide, and with shallow water.
Pavlidis said that the smugglers do not allow the refugees to carry luggage on the boat, so they must wear several layers of clothing at a time, such as three pairs of pants or five shirts, so the boat will undoubtedly capsize, and all those clothes will drag them down under the water.
The most common cause of death is drowning. Small boats crossing the river are often crowded with asylum seekers, causing the boat to capsize and drown.
Pavlos Pavlidis – Professor of Forensic Medicine in the Greek border region of Evros.
Death by freezing is the second most common cause of death for refugees on the river route, and the third cause is extreme stress.
“We can see that these people are exhausted from walking for long hours,” Pavlidis said, adding, “Imagine a man tired from swimming across a river, wearing several layers of wet clothes and not stopping to catch his breath. This will cause his body temperature to drop.”
Among the most common causes of death is that some people had pre-existing diseases that they did not know about and died from overexerting themselves, according to the forensic physician.
Beyond Evros River
Qusay al-Ahmad spoke to Enab Baladi about his brother Basil, 28, who wanted to leave Syria to establish a stable life, and he made his way from Syria to Turkey and then to the Greek border.
Qusay said that the smuggling network is nothing but a social network through which individuals communicate with each other and send each other the numbers of smugglers they have dealt with or with whom other people they know have dealt with, and these numbers are accessible to everyone.
The first attempt by Basil and his group to cross the river was on August 11, and it ended in failure, as they were returned by the Greek guards after taking all their belongings, including phones, bags, and watches. They left them only their clothes and then threw them into the Evros River, according to what Qusay said.
On August 17, on their second attempt, the group was able to successfully cross the Evros River.
It was only a short time after the second successful attempt that Qusay, who lives in Norway, heard about fires in the forests of Greece, and he quickly called his brother in the forests, who in turn reassured him that he saw the fire, but it was far away from them.
Basil, who was working in project management in the northern countryside of Aleppo, became out of contact on August 21.
Qusay woke up to news spread across Facebook and Arab and Greek news pages about the death of 18 refugees in Greek fires in the Avas region, the same area where his brother was in the previous evening.
He was afraid that his younger brother had died in the fire. He called people connected to members of Basil’s group to ask them how many people were with him in the group. They told him that they were 18 people, and then Qusay became certain that his brother was among the group.
Qusay, 31, traveled on a plane to Greece to give a sample for DNA analysis. A week later, they called him to tell him that the test results were identical and that his brother’s body was in Alexandroupolis Hospital. He asked them to see the location of the fire that claimed his brother’s life.
They were taking shelter from the fire in a barn for sheep and cows, spread out, trying to save their lives. This is how the medical team picked up their bodies. The fire had spread to everything: the house, the trees, the surrounding forest, and their bodies.
Qusay al-Ahmad – brother of one of the deceased in the Greek forest fires
Qusay sent what remained of his brother’s remains inside a shroud on the plane that he was unable to board. The destination was to Turkey and then to the northern countryside of Aleppo, to be buried by his family, who had bid farewell to him a month earlier, dreaming of a better future.
Who is the killer?
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor confirmed before the United Nations Human Rights Council that the widespread activity of mercenaries on the border between Greece and Turkey to suppress and repel the arrival of migrants to Greek territory is dangerous and illegal and must stop immediately.
During the 54th session of the Council, the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory reported that there is conclusive evidence of the Greek authorities’ recruitment and support of these mercenaries to reduce the number of asylum seekers.
Crimes against migrants have reached the point of killing them, including children, or deliberately sinking their boats, exercising various forms of abuse and torture against them, and forcibly returning them in extremely dangerous conditions.
The Geneva-based monitor added that the mercenaries use Greek security boats for their missions and carry out their “criminal” acts under the watchful eye of security.
Emma Gimbra, a researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, said that entrusting irregular groups (mercenaries) with the tasks of repelling and returning asylum seekers does not in any way exempt the Greek government from bearing the resulting legal consequences and that it may directly place it in front of double responsibility by virtue of its agreement to engage in illegal criminal activities on its territory.
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