Searching for the ID of the dead in the river of ghosts
When you enter the enclosure of Alexandroupolis University Hospital, between the first and the second building, there is a long dark tunnel, with the light of the sun, glaring as it appears on its two edges. About in the middle of the route, from one tunnel opening to the other, there is a white container refrigerator, with the Red Cross and Red Crescent badges printed on its doors. Inside this container are some of the dead refugees who lost their lives trying to cross the Evros River, in their attempt of searching for a better and safer future in Europe.
Less than ten meters from the container, with the back turned to the window, a man works on his computer. He is a forensic doctor at the Alexandroupolis University Hospital, Pavlos Pavlidis. Doctor and researcher at the same time. A detective in a sense, who for nearly twenty years, welcomes in his morgue the corpses of refugees who lost their lives in Evros. “The river of ghosts”.
“To become a forensic doctor you have to like it. I liked this specialty and so I followed it. It’s something I love” he told me in one of the many interviews we did together. Paul Pavlidis started to work in in Alexandroupolis morgue, about nineteen years before. However, his relationship with the “Ghosts River” began much much earlier. It began in the decade of 1970s, when as a child in the village of Dikea of Evros, he and his friends were playing in the dark waters and on the banks of the river that passed just outside their village. “What the river meant then and what it now means to me is something that has changed completely,” he says and continues: “The river has a completely different image to my eyes. Then it was a place we used to go and play. We had it as a river border between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. But now, having a very clear picture of how many people are passing by and still how many people have died in that river, it does not seems like a playground to my eyes anymore”.
Pavlos Pavlidis started working in the Alexandroupolis cemetery in 2000. “19 years ago, when I started in this position, there was virtually no forensic medicine here,” he says, unrolling his memories and continues: “It existed only in the level of lessons for the University. From then on when I came here, in 2000-2001, an attempt was made to collect personal belongings of those dying in Evros. An attempt to collect data that remaining in the forensic laboratory archive that we can use over the years to help identify these individuals. After some years, when we started this effort, from 2005-2006 the DNA process started. In collaboration with the Greek police, we take DNA samples from the corpses we find and we keep a database in order to identify the dead through DNA also.”
1500 dead in 19 years
The “river of ghosts” keeps its secrets very well hidden in its cloudy waters, its muddy bottom and under tree trunks and loads of materials carried along its course from the Bulgarian Rila Mountains to the Thracian Sea where it completes its journey. Evros is the second largest river in Europe at 480 kilometers. Pavlos Pavlidis estimates that since 2000, about 1500 people have died in its frozen waters and around Evros region.“I only have the numbers from the Greek side,” he says and continues: “Since now, we have 434 dead refugees, who have been found by the Greek side. We only have the numbers of the dead from the Greek side, because Turkey does not give figures. I think these twenty years, the numbers of the dead on the other side, are similar to ours. That is, we reach about 900 dead on both sides. The point is, however, that the Evros River holds too many corpses at the bottom, never to be discovered. That is why there are many unsuccessful searches by relatives of immigrants who told their relatives that they would cross the river, but then they gave no signs of life and were never been found. Let’s not forget that most of the dead we find in the river are in advanced sepsis. This is because the river holds them at its bottom and at some point due to the flow, or because some material has hit them, they come out on the surface and on the banks. I estimate that the dead in Evros in the last twenty years are around 1500.”
Looking for identity
The coroner at Alexandroupolis University Hospital is not an ordinary coroner. He is the only one in Greece and perhaps the only one in the whole world, with most of his work dealing with corpses in advanced decay. “The work of a forensic doctor in our area is not the same as in other areas,” he says and continues: “It is not about ordinary forensic practice. When we have a Greek whose identity we know, we look at other things. But when we have a man from a foreign country who has walked thousands of kilometers to reach Europe, because we are essentially Europe’s borders and die in this way, we are treated differently. It is our obligation to recognize who he is and to attribute him to his relatives. Because these people usually lie long after they have died, their bodies are in advanced sepsis. We therefore follow a different methodology. We are not so concerned with the cause of death, which is easy to find. We are interested in giving the dead to their relatives. In fact, we have to become a bit of a researcher. We need to look for some things that we are not interested in in a normal forensic practice. From the way we find these people we can understand their anxiety and will to go somewhere where they can find a better life. We find personal objects that respond to each ones character. We have found a bracelet that read “I believe”. This man believed in something. He was looking for something. There are personal items that correspond to the religion of each one or their gods. Especially when those we find come from African countries. I remember the first case I encountered as a medical examiner. He was a man who was found in a state of advanced sepsis, so unknown. From that case, the process that has been followed today has actually begun. From the effort we made to identify and attribute it to his relatives. This effort that started then, continues till today.”
Respect for the dead
Pavlos Pavlidis, during his tern in the cemetery of Alexandroupolis Hospital, has lived through many moments. Some filled him with satisfaction and some with frustration. Satisfaction when he managed to deliver the dead to his relatives and disappointment when he failed to do so. “For us, every case of death in the Evros River is a bet. But we are keeping one basic guideline. The respect of the deceased and the attempt to give it to his relatives. In this way, we try to provide an answer to the relatives who are waiting to learn about their beloved. It is an unpleasant answer for those who expect news from their people, but it is also an important response to their pursuits and anxiety. When we fail to identify the dead, we all feel that our work is not over. Not only me. Everyone that works with me in the lab, the police and everyone involved,” says Pavlos Pavlidis and remembers some of the stories that marked him in his 20-year career: “I have met many relatives of people who died in Evros. The cases that remain in my mind the most are those who have to do about children. There, unfortunately, the problem is very big. What I will never forget is the agony of a grandfather who has been looking for his three grandchildren and his daughter who died somewhere in Evros for two years in their attempt to cross the river. He continues to search, without any luck. I remember one time when the relatives of a dead person came from Africa. They have specific customs in the burial process. We had dances and songs here in the morgue. Each case, however, is a different story. As for the crimes that have happened in the river, what is remaining in our minds is the last criminal incident that we had with a mother and her two daughters, who was found dead near Evros and was the result of a criminal act. A crime that has not yet been clarified and women’s bodies are still in our refrigerators.”
The river of ghosts
“Yes it is the river of ghosts. With so many people lost and many more to be lost in the future,” Pavlos Pavlidis, categorically states, explaining the peculiarities of Evros by saying:” It is a unique river around the world. We have published a study in the American Disaster magazine on deaths in Evros. The prevailing conditions, the causes of death and how the dead bodies are found. I would say in quotes that Evros is a world original. The main cause of death has been drowning over the years. In the attempt to cross the river, they drown. Many times we find them wearing a lot of clothes. That means that if you just fell into the water, the clothes, are pulling you to the bottom. Traffickers often do not allow them to carry bags because there is not too much space in the inflatable boats and therefore they are wearing as much clothing as they can. A second cause of death is hypothermia. And hypothermia is directly linked to the river. They swim or walk where the water is shallower and their clothes are wet. So as they are tired, they sit somewhere to rest. They do not want to set a fire so that the police will not see them and most of the time they fall asleep and die of hypothermia. Still others lie on the train tracks because it is warmer and drier there. They fall asleep and they don’t hear the train coming. We used to have dead people by mines in the past, but the banks of the river have now been cleaned and we no longer have such incidents.
Evros has many peculiarities. First of all, it is a river whose water is not clean. It has no sharpness. Its waters are rushing. Its bottom is muddy so as soon as someone falls into the water, if the boat overturns and reaches the bottom, he stuck there and cannot rise to the surface. Plus they wear a lot of clothes and they pull them straight to the bottom. That is why the dead are left in the bottom and some accidental event has to occur, the bottom must be shuffled in order for the corpse to come to the surface and be found. Of course, once found, they are in a state of rot and the facial features cannot be identified. The papers, if he had any papers, have dissolved in the water, or fallen out of the pockets, and we cannot find them. Thus, the dead person cannot be identified or identified by his or her physical characteristics or a simple photograph, as is the case in all parts of the world. All of this has the effect of making our work unique. That’s why we photograph everything. The tattoos on the body of the deceased, his personal belongings, such as rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches, etc. All these are left here in the laboratory in plastic bags, with the number also in the dead man’s bag, so that if a relative recognizes from the objects that we have kept his person, we know where he is buried and we can attribute him. Deceased usually stay in our refrigerators for a few months before being buried.”
The procedure that is followed every time a new corpse is found in Evros, as Paul Pavlidis describes, is: “Usually if someone is found dead, it is found either by the border police, fishermen or hunters. The police is automatically alerted and a first photo is taken of the body in the place that was found. They are doing the first search for any objects that may help to identify him, and then the deceased is transferred to the forensic laboratory of the Democritus University of Thrace and is re-photographed with the police. A detailed record of his clothes and his body measurements is made. We are interested in tattoos, surgeries or anything else. We get DNA and then if we find any data or personal items that indicates his country of origin or name, we contact the consular authorities. The DNA is sent to the Greek police in Athens where there is a competent service. The corpse stays in our refrigerators for three to six months. Each corpse gets a unique number that is the same in its personal belongings and in the DNA sample and then buried in the Orestiada cemeteries. All of his personal belongings are kept here in our office. At some point there was an idea, to create a website with all these personal belongings so that everyone could see and recognize if they belonged to a relative of his. Eventually this idea was dropped, because there was a problem with these people’s sensitive personal data. Now the idea is to create a permanent exhibition of these objects so the people that are searching for their relatives to have the opportunity to check them.
However, many times, even if we find evidence of the dead, it is not easy to attribute it to his relatives. We had an incident six or seven years ago, where on the dead, we had found some credit cards. The dead man was a Chinese. We got in touch with the Chinese Embassy in Greece, which didn’t help us at all. Then I gave the details to the Paris-based International Red Cross. Two years later, they replied that they were unable to work with the Chinese authorities, who had told them that there were seven million people in China under that name. So we have a case where we know the name of the dead, but we cannot find his relatives»
Concluding the interview, I asked Pavlos Pavlidis, if sometimes, when he is alone in the lab with the body of an unidentified refugee, he feels powerless. “I think every person feels weak infront of these incidents,” he said and continued: “when he has, to face the death. In essence, death is the continuation of life. But not the abrupt interruption of life like that.”