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On Aug. 23, I stood inside what was left of a burned shack on a hillside. The air was heavy with smoke, however after hours of reporting I had given up protecting my mouth and nostril.
The soles of my ft have been scorching contained in the boots that had carried me on reporting assignments to Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and now Evros, the area in northeastern Greece that borders Turkey the place, two days earlier, a wildfire started to rage.
It was 104 levels Fahrenheit, and small flames have been nonetheless flickering contained in the hollowed-out trunks of historic timber. I’d been touring with Alexandros Avramidis, a photographer for Reuters, for security.
We sank into silence and took within the sight: The sky was a deep, sickly orange. Plumes of smoke rolled over the hills close by. Ash, damaged tiles and a mug — by some means, complete — littered the bottom beneath my ft. And there have been bones — fragments of a human tibia, although I didn’t realize it on the time.
I realized later that day that three asylum seekers, fleeing Syria for a greater life in Europe, had burned to demise the place I had stood. I’ve been round demise in my journalism profession, however this was completely different. The decimation of the pure surroundings mixed with the horrific deaths felt extra profound, extra complete.
That morning I had rushed from Brussels, the place I’m primarily based, to this nook of Greece. The day earlier than, the Greek authorities had introduced the invention of 18 charred our bodies, presumed to be asylum seekers, as nobody had declared lacking individuals regionally. I needed to report on the quickly advancing fireplace — it might quickly be declared Europe’s largest on document — and to be taught extra in regards to the victims.
My position at The New York Occasions is to cowl the European Union — principally coverage and politics — however I’m additionally a Greek nationwide, and I’ve deep expertise protecting migration. I’ve spent many of the previous six months writing about migrants being brutalized at Europe’s borders, many dying in horrid circumstances. This journey was one other information level in what has emerged as a sample: Asylum seekers are going through rising hostility of their determined seek for a future and security in Europe.
Dr. Pavlos Pavlidis, the coroner who offered essential info for my article, informed me he was optimistic that, regardless of the unrecognizable state of the charred our bodies, the stays could be recognized and returned to the victims’ households.
Over the subsequent few weeks, I labored intently with Karam Shoumali, a Syrian reporter who was indispensable in monitoring down sources, in addition to Dr. Jan Bikker, a Dutch forensic anthropologist. Six years in the past, Dr. Bikker moved to Athens to assist migrant households discover misplaced family members, providing his companies totally free.
Collectively we tried to piece collectively info. As the one considered one of us who spoke Greek, I known as each Greek governmental division concerned to be taught of any progress within the identification of the our bodies.
On the morgue, I examined the few items of proof that survived: a hoop with a sq. black stone (I sketched a drawing in my pocket book); a blackened males’s wristwatch (no discernible markings); and two smartphones (one a white Samsung, the opposite melted past recognition). A few of these particulars have been useful in our quest to be taught who the victims have been.
Early on, we discovered Qusai al-Ahmad, a 31-year-old engineer from Aleppo, Syria, who had been dwelling in Norway as a refugee and was on the lookout for his youthful brother Basel. He flew from Oslo to Athens to offer a DNA pattern, which might show key to figuring out the identities of the 18 individuals. Qusai knew that his brother had been touring as a part of a gaggle of Syrian males and boys; he helped us construct an inventory of individuals within the group. One was 13.
Over WhatsApp, Qusai shared movies and voice messages Basel had despatched him, in addition to places that he had shared alongside his route. Qusai was in contact with different family members who additionally began forwarding us info from their final communications with their family members. Many family members have been in denial that their households have been lifeless — some nonetheless are.
Dr. Bikker and I spoke day by day in regards to the newest info, as he fielded calls from different family members who frightened that their relations have been among the many 18. These calls jogged my memory that my reporting was a part of one other effort: to work out what occurred, in order that moms might sooner or later bury their sons.
On Sept. 6, Qusai’s DNA got here again as a match to one of many 18 our bodies. His textual content on the night of Sept. 6 was laconic: “They informed me as we speak that my brother was among the many victims. Tomorrow I’m touring to Greece.”
Once I met him at Athens Worldwide Airport two days later, he was with 4 of his cousins and Dr. Bikker. Along with the photographer Byron Smith, we received on a flight to Alexandroupolis, Evros’s largest metropolis.
Over the subsequent 12 hours, I drove 150 miles across the area, translated from Greek to English for Qusai (his youngest cousin translated in Arabic) and the opposite manner round.
Qusai requested me to take him the place Basel had died. I believed in regards to the half-hour hike up the hill (the world was inaccessible by highway) and puzzled if he’d make it.
However I had discounted the sheer vitality unleashed by grief. Being in its presence was humbling. We made the hike.
Earlier than heading residence that night, I accompanied Qusai to the fireplace division, the place he wanted to offer a replica of his passport to retrieve his brother’s stays.
A lieutenant fireplace colonel there, Dimitris Lykidis, was pleasant. He requested me to put in writing down all the related info in Greek. “I simply wish to be sure that it’s all one hundred pc appropriate, so he doesn’t want to return again right here,” he stated.
For a fleeting second, I felt proud that I’d stored it collectively all day.
It was solely when Lt. Lykidis informed me in Greek — and I informed Qusai’s cousin Mahmoud in English, and Mahmoud informed Qusai in Arabic — that he had collected Basel’s physique from the hills, and Qusai and Lt. Lykidis embraced in tears, that I needed to go away the room to regain my composure.
I nonetheless had a story to write.