They Ran for a Higher Life, Straight Right into a Wildfire

As they traversed the tough, wooded terrain in northeastern Greece, the 18 asylum seekers have been introduced with an agonizing dilemma: Take the safer route by means of villages and over highways, however into the arms of the Greek authorities, or journey by means of the forests and fields being ravaged by Europe’s largest recorded wildfire.

They opted for the forests.

On Aug. 21, round 9 p.m., the group of asylum seekers burned to loss of life in Europe’s largest recorded wildfire. Their our bodies, charred past recognition, have been found the following day.

Greek authorities assumed the victims have been migrants as a result of nobody was in search of lacking individuals domestically. And for greater than a month, their identities, and the circumstances of their deaths, remained a thriller.

However over weeks of reporting, The New York Occasions was capable of piece collectively beforehand unknown particulars concerning the group’s journey in its determined closing hours. The reporting reveals that at the least 12 had already been captured as soon as earlier than by Greek border guards and turned again to Turkey.

Their resolution to threat the wildfire was meant to keep away from recapture at any value. They have been fleeing war-ravaged Syria, searching for what they hoped could be a greater life in Europe.

As a substitute, they died on a rocky hillside, their ashes now combined with the gray-scale panorama of Evros, the place the local weather disaster fueling ferocious wildfires collided with the migrant disaster that has lengthy introduced tragedy to this area.

Just one physique has been recognized conclusively by means of DNA testing, as a result of a lot of the shut relations of the remainder dwell in Syria and can’t journey to supply related exams. However interviews with Greek officers, support employees, greater than 20 relations of the victims, and the smuggler who put them on the route, supplied in depth proof concerning the identities of the others.

The Occasions additionally examined voice messages, movies, location information and pictures despatched to members of the family. No less than 5 of the victims have been youngsters or youngsters, interviews and the movies steered.

In mid-September, a Occasions correspondent accompanied the brother and 4 cousins of the primary sufferer to be recognized to the positioning the place he perished.

The movies and voice messages supplied by relations revealed the group’s mounting terror as they tried to outrun the hearth.

Because the blaze climbed the hills and rushed up behind them, the lads and boys ran by means of the bushes and down a rocky path.

Three of them sheltered inside a tiny, disused shepherd’s shack, maybe pondering its 4 concrete partitions would shield them.

200 ft away on a hillside, 9 individuals huddled, amongst them at the least two youngsters. They died there collectively. One other synthetic it the farthest, down a hill, however he too was not quick sufficient.

The announcement of their deaths by Greek authorities set off panic practically a thousand miles away in Syria, the place members of the family started an anguished wait. They shared updates in a bunch chat and reconstructed their family members’ actions by means of movies and texts, expressing encouragement.

Even at present, the daddy of one of many boys presumed to have died within the hearth nonetheless holds out hope. “My coronary heart tells me he’s alive,” he mentioned.

When Basel al-Ahmad and his older brother Qusai have been rising up exterior Aleppo, Syria, Basel had been the playful and mischievous one, based on one in all their youthful cousins, main the gaggle of boys in epic stone-slinging competitions. However at 15, impressed by Qusai’s studiousness, Basel underwent a change.

He completed his grasp’s diploma in engineering on the high of his class on the College of Aleppo, his brother mentioned, and had spent the previous few months aiding restoration efforts after the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and northwestern Syria. However he felt the one approach to construct a life was to hitch his brother and cousins in Norway, the place they’d all been granted refugee standing over the previous decade.

For many years, individuals fleeing conflicts and excessive poverty have traversed the tough terrain of Evros, together with the harmful Evros River, searching for a brand new life in Europe. It is among the continent’s oldest and busiest migrant routes, with Greece the primary cease — and for some, the final.

1. Aug. 14 Group is detained by Greek authorities and despatched again to Turkey.

2. Aug. 20 They spend the evening close to Avas ready to be picked up the following day by the smuggler’s accomplices.

3. Aug. 21 The situation the place the group was alleged to get picked up.

4. Aug. 21 The location the place the 18 asylum seekers have been discovered burned to loss of life.

Basel, 28, went from Syria to Turkey, and on Aug. 11, with the assistance of a smuggler, he crossed the border into Greece with 11 others. However three days later, the group was detained by border guards and despatched again to Turkey, based on WhatsApp messages despatched to Basel’s brother and reviewed by The Occasions.

It was not an unusual incidence. Greece now has a report as one in all Europe’s most hostile nations towards migrants. In recent times, the authorities have cracked down on asylum seekers on the borders, usually utilizing violence and extrajudicial deportations, based on information reviews, rights teams and inner findings by the E.U. border company.

Greece’s repute for toughness deepened in June, when as many as 650 migrants drowned off its coast in one of many Mediterranean’s worst shipwrecks in a decade. Proof suggests that the Greek coast guard may have helped save them, however didn’t. The authorities have mentioned that they’re investigating the circumstances.

Home, worldwide and European Union legal guidelines require Greece to present everybody a good likelihood to use for asylum, with deportations solely after due course of. Greek authorities say they apply a “powerful however truthful” coverage, and deny they’re doing something unsuitable.

On a second try with the identical group, Basel crossed the border into Greece on Aug. 17, two days earlier than the wildfire broke out within the forest he was making an attempt to traverse.

Messages to his brother present that Basel and his group, to remain out of the sight of the police and the military, needed to preserve operating on wooded paths and hope the hearth stayed behind them.

On Aug. 20, Basel despatched a voice message to Qusai: A driver was supposed to choose up the group from a spot exterior the village of Avas, however the hearth was raging close by.

At 4 p.m. the following day, Basel despatched Qusai a video of a helicopter dropping water on the hearth, very close to the group.

One other video, despatched at 8:12 p.m., confirmed a part of the group, together with at the least 5 minors, strolling unexpectedly away from plumes of smoke.

The group’s final recognized location was close to Avas. Basel was final on-line on WhatsApp on Aug. 21 at 8:18 p.m. In interviews, a number of native residents mentioned the hearth burned by means of the realm between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The following day, Greek authorities introduced the 18 deaths, setting off panic among the many households. Qusai started a methodical seek for his youthful brother.

He began on Fb, on a web page that focuses on individuals crossing from Turkey to northern Greece.

Qusai, now 31 and dealing as an engineer in Norway, needed to consider his brother was alive, maybe hiding, or in detention in Greece or Turkey. His mom again house referred to as him incessantly asking for information.

A number of days later, Qusai obtained the numbers for different relations who had members of the family touring with Basel from the smuggler who had organized the journey. He arrange a WhatsApp group the place they exchanged items of stories that they hoped steered their family members have been nonetheless alive.

For instance, relations noticed on-line that in the course of the wildfires, residents turned vigilantes had been detaining asylum seekers, claiming they have been arsonists.

In a single case, three vigilantes detained 13 Syrians and Pakistanis who had simply crossed into Greece and have been making an attempt to flee the flames, locked them up in a windowless trailer, and livestreamed the entire episode on Fb. The migrants have been shortly launched and are making use of for asylum.

Some relations have been so determined that they hoped their family members is likely to be amongst these detained by the vigilantes.

Additionally they pressed the smuggler who had organized Basel’s journey, a Syrian based mostly in Turkey who goes by the title Abu Ali al-Hamwi, for info.

Smugglers preserve households knowledgeable of a journey’s progress as a result of they receives a commission solely when the migrants attain an agreed-upon vacation spot. Some publish upbeat updates on social media to promote their companies, and suppress unhealthy information.

The group of 18, the smuggler advised the households, contained Basel’s group of 12 Syrians plus six others they’d met on the best way in Greece. Messages and movies despatched by a few of them to relations affirm this.

The smuggler advised the households that he had info they’d all been detained in a camp in Greece. The asylum seekers and their households had paid 5,000 euros per particular person — greater than $5,200 — that the smuggler may accumulate solely when the group reached Serbia.

In a cellphone interview, Mr. al-Hamwi sought to defend his report as a smuggler, and mentioned that the Greek authorities had arrested three drivers who he had despatched to rescue the group. He mentioned he had suggested the asylum seekers to show themselves in to the authorities as a substitute of staying within the forests.

In Basel’s group, one man was working for the smuggler in Turkey as a information. One other was a distant cousin of Basel’s who had been working in Turkey as a development employee, one of many 3.5 million Syrians taken in by Turkey because the conflict started in 2011, now more and more unwelcome there.

Two of the youngest members of the group, Mahmoud al-Dawoud, 15, and Ali al-Dawoud, 13, have been cousins. They’d fled Syria to Turkey with their households in 2016, Ali’s father, Ahmad, mentioned, and had instantly registered for resettlement, the one formal path to asylum within the European Union.

Seven years later, they have been nonetheless struggling in Turkey, the place, Ahmad mentioned, public sentiment had turned towards Syrians. The households determined the cousins could be safer in Europe.

The 2 boys will be seen in movies of Basel’s group. Nonetheless, Ahmad doesn’t consider they’re lifeless. “Maybe they’re in an orphanage as a result of they’re youngsters, or in a jail,” he mentioned.

Qusai traveled to Greece and submitted a DNA pattern to the authorities on Aug. 27. As a result of he had a Norwegian passport, he may journey freely in Europe.

On the different finish of the identification course of was Pavlos Pavlidis, the one coroner in a big part of northeastern Greece. For the previous 20 years, it has been his job to post-mortem lifeless asylum seekers and attempt to discover their relations.

“For me, it’s a matter of responsibility,” he mentioned in an interview. “I have to attempt my finest to present all our bodies again to their family members to allow them to be buried, irrespective of who they’re.”

He took a deep puff from a cigarette in his workplace on the bottom ground of the hospital in Alexandroupolis, about six miles south of the place the 18 asylum seekers had been discovered. It was Aug. 23, the day after he had collected the our bodies and carried out autopsies on them.

The morgue was throughout the hall. Exterior, two giant Pink Cross refrigeration items held unclaimed our bodies.

The most effective likelihood at figuring out them could be DNA, Dr. Pavlidis mentioned. “A relative will inform me, my brother was six ft tall, he had blue eyes, brown hair, a tattoo,” he mentioned. “None of this issues when the physique is burned. The eyes are gone. The hair is gone. The pores and skin is gone. The physique shrivels.”

On Sept. 6, 10 days after submitting DNA, Qusai obtained the decision: His pattern confirmed definitively that he was the brother of one of many victims. Basel was lifeless. The remainder of his group have been most definitely lifeless, as nicely.

The information ripped by means of the WhatsApp group. Some disputed the DNA know-how: We have to see the our bodies, they mentioned, despite the fact that they have been unrecognizable. Others privately messaged Qusai: How can we give DNA?

All that was left was for Qusai to make the journey he dreaded. Flanked by 4 cousins, he flew to satisfy Dr. Pavlidis and determine the physique. And he needed to rearrange for his brother to be despatched to their mom in Aleppo, for a correct burial.

For 3,200 euros, or $3,400, a Muslim funeral parlor agreed to move the physique throughout Turkey to the Syrian border. There, Basel’s stays have been handed over to Syrian undertakers who took them to a burial website exterior Aleppo. On Sept. 13, their mom and different relations laid him to relaxation.

Qusai additionally needed to see — wanted to see — the place Basel died. Till that time, he had maintained his composure, however when he reached the hillside, accompanied by his cousins, he collapsed in anguish. He screamed and beat the ashen earth. He ran inside what was left of a shed and wouldn’t get out. He tumbled down the hill by means of the burned bushes. His cousins ran after him, held him, mourned with him, their laments chopping by means of the eerie stillness throughout the scorched hills.

About an hour later, Qusai sat within the automobile, staring forward blankly.

The very last thing he needed to do was give a duplicate of his passport to the native hearth division. Within the small workplace of a lieutenant hearth colonel, Dimitris Lykidis, a middle-aged, heavyset man with blackened arms, Qusai clasped his cellphone quietly.

“I collected your brother’s physique,” Lt. Lykidis mentioned, avoiding eye contact as he pretended to kind up a kind. “I used to be one of many firefighters on the scene.”

Qusai stood. “Please, can I hug you?” he requested. “You have been among the many final to see my brother. Thanks. I’m sorry about what occurred.”

Lt. Lykidis stood up, eyes brimming with tears. He opened his massive arms and held Qusai.

“I’m sorry, too,” he mentioned. “I’m very sorry.”

Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Berlin.


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