We were visiting a cemetery for illegal migrants who died crossing the border from Turkey. On the way I had been asking what it looked like, how big it was, and so on. But he refused to tell me anything.
We turned onto a dirt track that led off the main road and drove for a couple of hundred metres before he said, ‘we’re here’. I looked around, and saw nothing.
At the time, I hadn’t analyzed my expectations all that closely. I had vaguely pictured a few simple wooden crosses tucked in the corner of a cemetery. Perhaps here and there a poignant plastic rose.
On the roadside some soil was scraped up in a long ridge with regular gaps in it. It looked as if it was left over from the creation of the track. Had it not been for Wajid, I would never have guessed that this place was a mass grave.
Most of those who lie here drowned trying to cross the Evros River in flimsy dinghies. These are frequently overloaded and prone to capsize – many of the migrants cannot swim.
Since most of those trying to get into Europe are coming from Islamic countries, the ‘cemetery’ was to be placed in the Muslim village of Sidiro. However the community did not wish to have the migrants in their own cemetery, and so this place was chosen.
For about 140 people, it marks the tragic fulfillment of their dream to reach Europe. Lying on a rise among hillsides dappled with the autumn coppers and yellows of oak woods it is, at least, a beautiful spot.
Wajid, himself an Afghan immigrant who works as a fixer, told me that there was once a sign here that read “Illegal Immigrants Cemetery”. But hunters used it for target practice, and eventually it was taken down after the Greek press kicked up a fuss.
Now there is nothing here to mark this site. Already the older graves are only a mass of bumpy ground beneath weeds. In a few years the significance of this place will remain alive only in the memories of the few people – like Wajid – who care.
It is unlikely that any family member will ever visit here. It is improbable that any even know of this place, let alone what happened to their loved ones.
The irony is that the most tragic cemeteries in the world – those of people who died unnoticed and uncared for – tend to be places wholly without drama or poignancy. No stone-robed angels will ever mark these graves.
Modern Europe, the EU, prides itself on being a place where mass-graves and the like are a thing of the past. But without at least some piece of stone, some memorial, this place is surely a stain on Europe’s conscience.
You can read my report on illegal immigration into the EU for the Times here. I also have a more extensive report and photo essay coming out on SETimes.com soon.
Afghan migrants at the bus station in Orestiada, Eastern Greece