Saturday, February 20, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

As appeared in Ekathimerini


I planned to write a piece on the evolving attitude of Europe toward the migrant/refugee crisis, pivoting on the recently announced determination by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (aka the Visegrad Four) to tighten border controls, Austria announcing it will limit asylum applications to 80 per day, Germany—with Merkel’s party facing March elections—vowing not to take anywhere near the numbers it did last year, and France just saying no. 

Of course, all of that assumes Greece can somehow keep the frightened masses fleeing extermination securely penned up and conveniently away from the rest of Europe’s doors.  Such a solution would avoid the messy need for the EU to develop a coherent plan for addressing the root causes of this first true human catastrophe of the 21st Century, and with threats being the political currency of our time, that is how Europe seeks to inspire Greece to act, or rather come up with a magic wand.

It ain’t going to work, folks.  Not because of Greece, but geopolitical reality: The EU better wake up and smell the Turkey basting.

Over 800,000 streamed into Greece (a nation of eleven million) last year, mainly via Turkey (a nation of 80 million), fleeing wars raging within Turkey’s Iraq and Syria neighbors to the south (as well as Afghanistan).  Then, of course, there is the Kurdish element, an ethnic minority comprising between 15 to 25 million of Turkey’s population, depending on whose figures one accepts.  

Turkey’s government blamed this past week’s terror attack on Turkish military in Turkey’s capital of Ankara on Syrian Kurds—allied with Turkish Kurds—and a splinter group has claimed responsibility as retribution for the military's killing of Kurds.  There is deep historical antipathy between the Turkish government and its Kurdish population—with Turkey publicly avowing never to allow an independent Kurdish region at its borders.  All of which is made far more complicated by both the US and Russia separately relying upon alliances with Syrian Kurds in their separate wars; the US in battling ISIS, and the Russians in fighting anti-Syrian-regime forces.

This isn’t going to get any better any time soon.

So, I’ll get to my point. In reading current news articles on the state of this mess, I came across a Reuters story by Karolina Tagaris.  It reduced the sense dulling numbers we hear of the people fleeing and dying to a simpler concept tied into a tiny plot of land on one of the Greek islands bearing the brunt of the crisis.  I realized there was no reason for me to rage on about the political implications of it all, for no one seems to care.  Instead I decided to repost this piece so that we can appreciate the only possible ending of this crisis for so many: in tears.

Here is Ms. Tagaris’s article titled, “Unknown Dead Fill Lesbos Cemetery for Refugees Drowned at Sea.”

She drowned trying to reach Europe, but her headless body was never identified. Her tombstone will bear no name.

Like others buried beside her in an olive grove on the Greek island of Lesbos, the marble plaque on her unmarked grave will proclaim the victim “Unknown”. Her epitaph an identification number, the date she washed ashore, and her presumed age: one.

Sixty-four earthen graves have been dug in this land plot for refugees and migrants who drowned crossing the Aegean Sea trying to reach Europe. Just 27 of those are named.

The others state plainly: “Unknown Man, Aged 35, No 221, 19/11/2015;” “Unknown Boy, Aged 7, No 40, 19/11/2015;” “Unknown Boy, Aged 12, No 171, 19/11/2015.”

More than half a million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries plagued by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have arrived on Lesvos since last year hoping to continue to northern Europe.

In 2015, the deadliest year for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, more than 3,700 people are known to have drowned or gone missing, the International Organization for Migration says. The actual number is believed to be higher.

Hundreds have drowned in Greece since arrivals surged last summer. So many, in fact, that the section of one Lesvos cemetery designated for refugees and migrants has long run out of space.

Locals conclude that entire families have drowned in the same shipwreck, leaving no survivors to identify the victims.

They recall bodies found severely decomposed after days at sea, or dismembered from crashing against the rocks of the island's long coastline.

“It doesn't feel right, seeing a child of unknown identity, an unknown child, a child of 'roughly this age',” said Alekos Karagiorgis, a caretaker who has transported hundreds of corpses from beaches across the island to the morgue since summer.

“It doesn't matter if it's your job. It breaks your heart.”

Remote beaches on the island still bear the traces of arrivals: flimsy, discarded life jackets are strewn across the rocks as well as the odd shoe, a jacket, milk formula and nappies.

Though fewer than 10 nautical miles separate the Aegean island of Lesvos from Turkey, hundreds have drowned trying to make it across on overcrowded rubber or wooden boats.

In October, following a nighttime shipwreck from which more than 200 were rescued but dozens died, the St. Panteleimon cemetery ran out of space to bury the dead and the island's morgue had to bring in a container to keep the bodies.

That prompted local authorities to set aside a plot of land in one village for burials.  Dozens buried
There Mustafa Dawa, a boyish-looking 30-year-old from Egypt in Greece since his 20s, has taken on the unofficial role of washing, shrouding and burying the dead, their heads faced towards Mecca.

“I did 57 funerals in seven days. In one day I did 11,” he said, recalling spending a few minutes crouched in the grave of the headless child, weighed down by emotion.

Dawa says it's the least he can do. “I can't stop the war there, I can't make them cross (to Europe) legally. All I can do is bury them.”

Since the October shipwreck, Theodoros Nousias, a coroner, has photographed and taken DNA samples of more than 200 victims who drowned off Lesvos and the island of Samos, keeping an archive in case relatives seek them out.

One body washed ashore this week, but it's anyone's guess when or where the person died, he said. Whenever the wind blows, those who drowned in Turkey are washed ashore on Lesvos.

While some victims have been identified through photographs, others are simply unidentifiable, he said, except through DNA.

Only one of hundreds has been traced this way so far, Nousias said.

Like Nousias, Karagiorgis, the caretaker, and others on Lesvos faced daily with the reality of death, hope for the day the victims will be identified.
“I hope they trace them through DNA so that these people can rest,” Karagiorgis said.

”So that their souls can rest in peace, the mother or father searching for this person finds peace and says, 'you know what, they chose to do this and they drowned this way'.”

May God have mercy on their souls…and plague the consciences of those who do nothing.



  1. It's this widespread unwillingness to help the helpless that most drains the hope from me that somehow we can find our way to a better, fairer future. Sometimes I think that we live far to short of lives, that if we lived longer, we would become wiser and more compassionate. But probably not.

    1. I wonder how much of this insensitivity is a product of so much of our human interactions now confined to touch screens?

  2. If they were blond and blue eyed places would be found for them. #AllLivesMatter!

    1. The line used to be "white." If you're correct,sis, this is not the sort of abandoning of racial barriers I was hoping for.

  3. Here's a comment to this post put up on Facebook by a Mykonian friend, Stacey Harris-Papaionnou:

    "The graves tell the worst part of the story. But hope can not be vanquished so easily. Below is a listing of notifications I receive regularly working as part of a team of volunteers that meet and greet refugees traveling through the port of Piraeus. We are notified of the times of boat arrivals and how many refugees will disembark. We prepare and distribute care packages for them as they board buses heading directly to Idomeni on the Northern Greek border. The numbers are not diminishing because the hope is not diminishing to make the attempt for something better than certain death.

    February 18 at 9:40pm
    UPDATE #1
    FRIDAY 19/02/16
    SATURDAY 20/02/16
    SUNDAY 21/02/16
    Οne hour before each arrival, we meet at Gate Ε1 passenger terminal to prepare for welcoming the refugees at all Gates.For ships calling at E2 (every morning from Lesvos,Chios) and E7 (everyThursday & Sunday night from Lesvos,Chios,Samos) you may also join us at the respective docks. All volunteers are most welcome!
    Contact nrs: 6943647887/6906408586

  4. I suspect a lot of the insensitivity is caused by the overwhelming nature of the situation -- there is only so much the mind can stand before it grows too much and automatic self-protection against despair, hopelessness, and utter insanity kicks in. Doesn't make it right, but ...

    Thank you for these reports. A lot of these details don't always make it into the usual news sources.--Mario R.

    1. You're welcome, Mario. The staggering numbers certainly trigger all sorts of psychological defense mechanisms, but we would hope European governments could see past those diversions to the true, underlying human suffering and DO SOMETHING beside posture and finger point.

  5. Very good post by Jeff and Karolina Tagaris. Agree with all of it.

    What gives me hope are all of the people who provide aid and comfort to the refugees, including those who scrape the money to do so. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them, and everyone is Europe should follow their example.

    Solidarity is crucial to human beings. Even in the face of horror, there were heroic, principled people who resisted Nazi oppression, all over Europe.

    And, yes, the wars in the Middle East are the cause. And what are the U.S., NATO and the Saudi Coalition doing to stop them and find a humanitarian solution and end the devastation? As long as the wars continue, so will the migration.

    It's an international humanitarian crisis, no doubt. The global will should be to stop the wars and aid all of its victims.

  6. What a sad, sad situation. It breaks my heart that people have no choice but to flee their homes, and more so that sometimes it seems like they have no good alternatives--no place that wants to accept them, no way to get help where they are.

    I keep hoping the world will find a way to pull together and help these disenfranchised, desperate souls. Sometimes, it just seems that those who can help, won't help, and those who want to help don't have much way to do it.