LESBOS, GREECE—There’s little room left in the graveyards on this windswept island. Aid workers on Lesbos struggle to bury the growing number of refugees’ bodies pulled from the sea.
Of the more than a million people who have found safe haven in Europe this past year, many have come through Lesbos first. But in crossing the waters to get here, more than 4,000 others have died.
And their bodies have to wait.
«There are men and women, but the majority are children,» says Mostafa Mahmoud, an Egyptian student living in Greece who has volunteered to help with funerals. «Nobody cares, no humanitarian organizations or Islamic groups.»
Volunteers and aid workers help refugees get to shore after they landed on the northern part of the island of Lesbos, Greece, Jan. 20, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
Refrigerators for the dead
Frustration has built over recent months, as bodies wash ashore, at times singly, at others by the dozens as the flimsy rubber boats bringing refugees from Turkey succumb to the Mediterranean’s waves.
«We had, at one point, 85 dead people in both the refrigerators and the container,» says Theodoros Nousias, a coroner at Mytilene General Hospital, referring to the special, refrigerated container brought in to help deal with the influx of victims.
Newly arrived refugees walk to a reception camp at Skala Sykaminias on the northern part of the island of Lesbos, Greece, Jan. 20, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
«In the big accident, on October 28, 2015, whole families vanished along with their children,» Nousias adds. «So you can see, many people have not been identified.»
The coroner does what he can, swabbing the dead for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate.
Buried in an olive grove
Lesbos is overwhelmed with refugees, both the living and the dead. But even before the influx, the island’s graveyards were nearly full, and most of them are Christian. For Muslim refugees who died en route, burial has proved yet more difficult.
Refugees queue for tea and hot drinks after they arrive near the port on the southern part of Lesbos, Greece, Jan. 23, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
An olive grove has been cleared to provide some space. Row upon row of freshly dug graves are marked with marble headstones. Volunteer Mahmoud, a graduate of Al Azhar University back in Cairo, draws on his religious studies to help make sure proper rituals are observed. But there’s only so much that can be done.
«There were many heart-breaking accidents and burials: the father is buried somewhere and the mother in a different area and the children someplace else,» he recounts.
It’s a testament to the desperation of those coming to Europe that they are willing to take such risks. And some who have now say they wouldn’t have, had they known.
From left, refugees’ tombs display childrens’ names and ages in Arabic and English, “Jalal Molla, 4 years old” and “Ala Hajo, 6 years old,” Jan. 23, 2016. (H. Elrasam/VOA)
«I advise all the Syrian refugees coming to Europe these days, they shouldn’t come,» says Gomaa, who arrived by boat the day before. «The sea is high, and it’s winter, and yesterday, the smugglers promised to put 40 people in each boat, but they put 70.» One woman, he says, died during the journey. The Greek coast guard came to the rescue of the rest.
Gomaa says he left Syria for Europe because he wants treatment for a disabled daughter and education for his sons. But the passage – for him, his two wives and six children – was more challenging than he imagined.
«What I have witnessed in the sea made my heart burn for the children,» he says. «For a young man, he can save himself. But the young kids – two- or five-year-olds – if something happened, they can’t rescue themselves.»
Those children, lost to the sea and brought to shore, in the end are given a grave. In the old olive grove, the names of some are carved in the headstones.
Others are simply marked «Unknown.»