Fighting against oblivion

In Northern Greece, a forensic pathologist is working to give a name to the hundreds of refugees who have died trying to cross the river Evros.

Text, video and images by Christine Pawlata

The red watch is still working. Time passes by in an endless procession of hours, minutes and seconds flashing on its screen.
But the label on the plastic bag containing the watch indicates the date on which time ceased forever for the man who used to wear it on his wrist: February 25, 2016.

“He was found three days after his death,” said Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic pathologist who works at the general hospital of Alexandroupolis, a city at the Turkish border in Northeastern Greece. “He died of hypothermia. Like many others who lie down to rest, soaking wet, after the dangerous and exhausting crossing of the river Evros. The moment they fall asleep, it’s already too late for them.”

The watch and a slim gold ring were the only personal belongings that were found on his body.

Together with an anonymous tomb, marked only by a numbered plaque on a graveyard in Orestiada in Northern Greece, these objects are the only remains of his his life and his dramatic journey.

He is known to Dr. Pavlidis only by the date and the reason for his death. But somewhere there is a family member, a son, a mother, or a friend perhaps, in agony about his fate, who knows his name, his history, and where he was headed.

The watch is one piece of the puzzle that one day might allow his loved ones to know what happened to him as he tried to make his way to Europe.

Dr. Pavlidis’ job focuses on the identification of refugees who died a violent death trying to cross the river Evros, which winds along the Greek-Turkish border for 196 km. When he first started working as a forensic doctor in 1999, he didn’t expect these cases to be at the center of his daily routine.

Since 2000 he has been working to give a name to more than 400 people who were found dead on the Greek side of the border. He doesn’t know anything about the victims found on the other side of the river; The Turkish authorities don’t exchange any information with their Greek colleagues.

For many years migrants walked across the 12,5 km long land border close to the Turkish city Edirne. It’s the only section of the frontier where the river Evros doesn’t form a natural barrier. But after the Greek government built a fence in 2012, migrants had no choice but to cross the river

The distance they have to overcome is much shorter than that of the sea that divides mainland Turkey from the Aegean islands, but the currents of the Evros are deadly.

According to Pavlidis, most people who were swallowed by the river never resurface.

In an attempt to give a name to these people who have died far from home in anonymity, Pavlidis takes DNA samples and pictures of specific features, like dental records, scars or tattoos of the deceased. He keeps them in an archive that is shared with the Greek police and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Personal belongings play an important role in the identifying process. Pavlidis cleans, preserves and takes pictures of the objects in order to show the photographs to the relatives who will hopefully be looking for their loved ones. 

(view the gallery at the bottom of this page for pictures of some of these objects)

Formally, Pavlidis’ job would stop with the autopsy. Keeping an archive and fighting for the identification of these victims are his own personal initiative. Until the beginning of 2016 the unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave, which made the restitution of the bodies to their families difficult.
It is thanks to Pavlidis’ commitment that these dead are now being transferred to a new cemetery where they receive a more dignified burial.

“It is out of respect and interest for these people. Human life is unique for many, many reasons. It’s very hard not to know what happened to one’s loved ones. Many families have been searching for them for years. They feel a sense of relief when they find out what happened to their loved ones. The anxiety stops.”

11 Nov 2016 0

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