Monthly Archives: November 2010

Forgotten in Greece

As we drove towards Sidiro, Wajid was determined to keep me in suspense.

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 soon.

Afghan migrants at the bus station in Orestiada, Eastern Greece


The Taksim suicide bomb

Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square didn’t cause much of a stir internationally. Measured by ruthless newsroom standards it lacked two things: body bags and Al Qaeda.

Though no-one has claimed the attack, it seems obvious that it was related to the current peace overtures being exchanged between the Turkish government and the PKK, and which it was no doubt calculated to disrupt.

I have story out on SETimes examining what impact the bombing may have on the nascent peace process, which you can read here.

Leyla and Parham

Leyla and Parham on a boat crossing the Bosphorus. Picture courtesy of, and copyright owned by, Jonathan Lewis.

On Friday I had a story in the Times recounting the horrific ordeal of an Iranian woman who fled persecution by the regime in Tehran.

Leyla was tortured and gang-raped by five men for speaking to her fiancé Parham, a dissident who had fled to Turkey. The couple got married here two weeks ago. Their true identities have been concealed because family members are unaware of Leyla’s ordeal.

One has to be very careful in checking the veracity of these kinds of stories, particularly in cases such as this where the subjects are asylum seekers and have an obvious motive for lying.

In this case, I was shown medical and psychiatric reports verifying Leyla’s story. Also, having interviewed the couple for more than four hours and after spending a good deal more time with them, I felt convinced they were genuine.

As I made clear in the story, Leyla could not categorically identify her attackers as being linked to the Iranian state, but there was strong evidence to suggest they were.

Her interrogators questioned her regarding her whereabouts on the days of anti-government protests. They also revealed knowledge of her phone conversations that suggested someone had been tapping her mobile. After the attack, when she received calls threatening to release a video of the rape onto the internet, the callers succeeded in finding her phone number even after she changed it.

A confusing aspect was that her assailants went to some length to abduct her secretly. My gut feeling, and that of the Iranian journalist and translator who helped me with the story, was that the people who attacked her were likely to be affiliated with the country’s Basij militia, but were probably not acting under any direct orders.

Though finally free from persecution, the couple still have serious problems, not least the strain of the years-long asylum application process. Leyla has been left with serious physical and psychological damage as a result of the attack, which cannot be adequately addressed in the provincial Turkish town where the asylum procedure requires them to live.

They nonetheless show an inspiring determination to get on with their lives. I wish them all possible luck for the future.

Someone has reposted the story to Facebook. You can read it here.