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Greek forensics professor finds missing links for grieving families

Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensics professor at the Democritus University of Thrace. UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensics professor at the Democritus University of Thrace. UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Pavlidis Pavlos makes a living out of dying. The Greek forensics professor has spent the past 20 years examining human corpses fished out of the Evros River, which forms most of Greece’s border with Turkey.

“Today I was brought a body from the river, probably a refugee,” he told recent visitors from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in his office at the Democritus University of Thrace in the north-eastern town of Alexandroupolis. “We will get information from the body and clothes.”

Pavlos added that it was the twelfth body brought to him this year by the police “and we expect more.” He has files in his office listing a further 359 that he examined between 2000 and 2017 – all from the Greek side of the river. The figures highlight the risks people are ready to take.

Pavlos is passionate about his profession and sees it as his duty to try and bring closure for the families of the dead by identifying their missing relatives, most of whom in the past few years have been refugees fleeing from conflict in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I want to give an answer to people.”

“I am trying to find the missing link between the dead bodies and any living family. It’s very important for me and I want to give an answer to people who are waiting for a phone call from a [missing] son or daughter,” he stressed.

It is no easy task – bodies decompose faster in freshwater than in the salty sea, paper identity documents disintegrate, mobile phones are destroyed, and bodies become bloated and difficult to identify.

But DNA is collected during the autopsy and forwarded to police, and all possessions, including rings, keys, ornaments, clothing, shoes, watches, wallets, become clues and are photographed, as are tattoos and distinctive marks.

Up to last year, Pavlos’s valuable sleuthing had enabled him to identify 103 bodies. Some families come and take the bodies away, others leave them to be buried in Greece, where their journey of hope came to a bitter end.

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The Evros River, seen here passing close to the city of Orestiada. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

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Personal items found on one of the unidentified dead bodies. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

The leading cause of death is drowning, but others die from hypothermia during the bitter winter, or for medical reasons. A small number were killed while crossing railway tracks or stepped on landmines near the river before these were cleared.

The professor keeps up to a dozen corpses for 3-7 months in a morgue and refrigerated container donated by the International Committee for the Red Cross while trying to identify them. He watched and shouted out instructions as his experienced assistant cut the clothes from the body brought in that morning.

A ring on one finger offered an indication of the country of origin, but Pavlos reckoned the man was in the water for three weeks. “It’s very difficult to make an identification.”

As he talked in Alexandropoulis, a traumatized Iraqi couple in northern Evros mourned for their missing nephew, Ahmed Fadhil, who fell into the cold water of the river when their inflatable dinghy capsized as they were trying to cross into Turkey at night in early April. They are exactly the kind of people that Pavlos tries to help.

“There are bodies at the bottom of the river.”

“Ahmed was lost on his fourth birthday, April 4,” the grieving aunt, Jihan, explained to UNHCR at the government-run Fylakio Registration and Identification Centre, where new arrivals are registered and given information on their rights. She had dedicated her life to bringing up her brother’s youngest son after Ahmed’s mother died in a car crash. Her husband Dilshan feared for his life. He also suffered psychological problems and needed treatment.

The disappearance of Ahmed was like a hammer blow for the couple, who could not have children of their own. They waited all day by the river looking for the boy. “I do not have any hope that Ahmed is still alive,” an emotional Jihan later said, adding that her brother rang daily to ask if there was any news. All she had were photos of a happy boy that she had kept protected in a plastic bag.

“If anyone knows anything about Ahmed, let us know if he is alive or dead,” Dilshad implored. In late May, Ahmed’s body was found on the Turkish side and identified from his clothes by Jihan and Dilshad.

Pavlos, who had heard about the case of Ahmed, predicts that he will continue to be kept busy so long as people continue to flee across the Evros River. “There are bodies at the bottom of the river,” he noted. UNHCR, meanwhile, warns people about the dangers of these journeys and continues to advocate for safe pathways.

This article was originally published on unhcr.org