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A bulldozer on the western side of the Aghios Panteleimonas Cemetery on the island of Lesvos digs four fresh graves on a late September afternoon. Four bodies, wrapped in white sheets, are soon to be buried there. These graves will not be marked with names but simply with numbers and a date. The date of a shipwreck.
No one knows the name, exact age or birthplace of the deceased. The only information available is their height and gender – and that their journey began from the Turkish coast just across the Aegean Sea.
These people died at sea but their journey is still not over. In Athens, on the first floor of the Greek Police's Criminal Investigation Department (DEE), a team of scientists are trying to identify people like them.
The DNA lab receives sample of biological material belonging to migrants and refugees drowned in the Aegean before they move on to the more complex procedure of determining the genetic type. The hope of identifying those lost at sea lies with the same labs that identified the victims of the 2007 wildfires in Ilia in the Peloponnese.
“The lab is currently examining samples from 21 individuals that could not be identified on the basis of facial features, fingerprints or dental radiographs,” said Penelope Miniati from the Biological and Biochemical Examinations and Analysis Subdivision of the Greek Police's Forensic Sciences Division (DEE). “However, we are expecting the number to rise,” she added.
More than 470 migrants and refugees died in the Eastern Mediterranean between January and October, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In October alone, 49 children lost their lives in Greek territorial waters. Most of them died off the coast of Lesvos, prompting the municipality to declare three days of mourning last month.
“An earthquake couldn't have killed this many people on the island,” says Alekos Karagiorgis, a funeral home director.
His feet are still wet from wading into the sea to retrieve another body.
After every shipwreck, a motley crew of people deals with the dead. Fishermen locate the bodies at sea and help bring them to shore. Morticians transport them to the hospital, where coroners collect biological material. Volunteers, meanwhile, conduct the funerals or help the living, together with the coast guard, as they identify their dead relatives.
A recent conference in Barcelona with coroners from Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece heard how such structures, while motivated by a desire to help, can be less than ideal in terms of operation. There is rarely a single authority tasked with collecting ante- and postmortem evidence, biological material does not always go where it needs to and, in Greece in particular, many islands don't even have a coroner to conduct autopsies.
Over the past few months, coroner Costas Kouvaris, as an associate of the Hellenic Red Cross Tracing Department, serves as an intermediary between the families of missing people, coroners and hospitals on the Greek islands.
“Older people such as myself remember the radio announcements of the Red Cross Tracing Department, looking either for Greeks who emigrated to the US or former World War II prisoners of war,” he says.
For a few years now, the department has been tasked with helping families locate missing refugees. Using the Red Cross's worldwide network, it gathers information from the relatives of missing people (height, weight, hair color, eye color etc, as well as the last known location) and compares it to data available from the islands' coroners or the coast guard.
During a recent lecture tour of the islands of the eastern Aegean and Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, Kouvaris briefed 151 coast guard and police officers, firefighters, coroners and volunteers on the importance of detailed records of postmortem evidence. He explained that bodies need to be photographed immediately, as are the unknown individuals' personal belongings (clothing, shoes, bags, watches, cell phones etc).
Last year, the DNA section of the DEE managed to extract genetic material from the personal items of a group of migrants who died on Samos in a fire they had lit to stay warm.
“We have been identifying missing people for years. It is our duty,” says the DEE's director, Major General Dimitris Papanagiotou.
The DNA department is staffed by 50 people, half of whom are scientists (biologists and biochemists). Nine in 10 hold doctorates. The bulk of their work concerns criminal cases.
The first samples of biological material from unidentified migrants that arrived at the police labs in the late 1990s belonged mainly to males aged 25-35 who had drowned in the Evros River on the Greek-Turkish border.
“Now it is coming from families in the Aegean,” says Dr Penelope Miniati.
The DNA labs have handled material from the remains of more than 400 migrants in the past 15 years. A different process is used to isolate DNA depending on the sample. Genetic material can be extracted from bone using a special machine.
The next step is to identify how much usable DNA can be found in each sample. The DNA is then subjected to multiplication and electrophoresis (to separate fragments) so that a genetic profile can be formed.
The service is also equipped with special machines that can process 200 samples in under two hours with minimal staff intervention. Training in the use of these machines has just been completed and they will soon be put into regular use.
The final step, in cases where there are no relatives to provide material for comparison, is to enter all the new data into a database for unidentified people, where it is already available to families looking for their loved ones. So far, however, no migrants have been identified through this database.
Even if the family of the deceased is abroad, identification is possible, albeit difficult. Recently, biologist and head of the DNA casework department Aristea Metheniti received a call at the DEE office from a young Lebanese man who was looking for his mother. All he knew was the she had drowned off the coast of Farmakonisi and her body had probably been taken to Rhodes. He had no way of securing a visa to travel to Greece and identify her. Instead, he was given directions on how to give a sample of his own biological material to a respected lab in his own country so that a genetic profile could be formed. This was then sent via the Greek Embassy in Lebanon to the DEE's DNA lab, allowing his mother's body to be identified and returned home for burial.
In another case, via Interpol and the Black Notice service for tracing unidentified bodies, a victim was identified through a genetic profile sent from Pakistan.
“We comprehend the pain of people who don't know the fate of their loved ones,” says Dr Miniati.
“Learning that the person has in fact died gives some closure.”
A few weeks ago, coroner Theodoros Nousias was with a father at the main hospital of Lesvos, in the capital Mytilene, as he identified the bodies of his three children. “These people are fleeing a war and end up drowned. I wouldn't wish those images on anyone,” he tells Kathimerini.
Nousias works nonstop, often from early in the morning to late at night, without holidays or time off, conducting autopsies. He is working at the hospital on a fixed-term contract that expires in December.
On the day we spoke, he had 14 bodies waiting in the morgue. More came in later. There was not enough room to keep them until a 12-meter refrigerated container was sent to the island a few days ago.
The acquisition of the container was possible thanks to the volunteer group Horio tou Oli Mazi (the Village of All Together) and an 8,000-euro donation covering the cost from a British judge who was in Lesvos this summer volunteering her services to the migrant rescue effort. Burials are also a problem due to a shortage of space at the local cemetery and the Municipality of Mytilene is trying to get a new plot so it can expand the facility.
The process of managing the bodies is extremely stressful for all involved. Volunteer Efi Latsoudi started helping with burials and identifications in 2012, after a shipwreck off the coast of Thermi near Thessaloniki. Last year she and other volunteers helped a woman find the body of her child. She had survived a shipwreck off Lesvos and provided biological material so DNA could be extracted. Her child's body was found several months later off Chios and was identified through DNA profiling.
Over the past two months Latsoudi has taken part in an increasing number of burials. She is assisted by local volunteers as well as Muslim migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt who have lived in Greece since 2001. Some of them had entered Greece via Lesvos, along the same route followed by hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants today. They also wanted to continue further into Europe but didn't make it and ended up staying on the island.
Recently a refugee helped with a burial just shortly before boarding a boat for Piraeus to start his journey north.
“I started out thinking of it as our duty,” says Latsoudi.
“But it started wiping me out from one point on. It's draining watching mothers bury their children.”