Last journey: The migrant who lost everything

Media captionNowrouz spent days looking for the bodies of his wife and two children after they died on the crossing Greece

Hundreds of migrants face huge debts and a logistical nightmare to repatriate the bodies of loved ones who have died during perilous sea crossings to Europe.

Compounding the trauma of personal loss they face a lonely battle to find and identify husbands, wives and children before trying to bring them home for burial.

The survivor

Mohammed Nowrouz Noori is an Afghan man in his late 30s but he is already a broken man.

In January this year he set off with his wife Nilufar, son Mohammad and baby daughter Nastaran from the Turkish coast heading for Greece.

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Nowrouz at the grave of his wife Nilufar in Kabul

“When we were boarding my son said ‘Dad I have prayed that we reach to other side safely’,” Nowrouz says as he recounts the tragedy at the family home back in Kabul.

“We could see lights from Greece. I reassured him, saying ‘tonight is the last night of our troubles’.”

But the boat arranged by people smugglers soon got into trouble and capsized.

“In a matter of seconds water was everywhere, filling the boat. It was dark. I lost my children and my wife who had been sitting next to me,” Nowrouz says.

At least 39 migrants, including several children drowned that day. Nowrouz was among more than 60 rescued,

What came next was a 12-day struggle to recover the bodies of his loved ones and bring them home for burial.

Read more:

The untold story of Europe’s drowned migrants

Anatomy of a shipwreck

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Nowrouz says he kicked in a window of the sinking vessel as he called for his family

Nowrouz says he received medical treatment in a camp on the Turkish coast where police showed him photos of bodies which had been recovered.

“I saw my family’s pictures there,” he says. “I saw the photo of my one-year-old daughter, my six-year-old son and my wife who was 25. I lost them.”

A police officer asked whether Nowrouz intended to bury his family in Turkey or take them home. After phoning relatives he decided the family should be buried in Kabul.

The next day a minibus took Nowrouz and other survivors to Istanbul where he turned to the Afghan consulate for help.

“They said that I have to repatriate the bodies myself,” he says.

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Photos supplied by family

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Nowrouz pictured with his daughter Nastaran (left) and son Mohammad

The consular official

At the Afghan consulate in Istanbul, Zia Zaki is one of those trying to cope with the fallout from the migrant crisis.

“We have assembled a team of three people to deal specifically with refugee issues,” he says as he sifts through piles of documents.

“In the last incident I attended there where 25 Afghans who lost their lives at sea. I saw a child’s body in the cold room.

“I have my own small child. I tried to stay strong because it was my job to be there and identify the bodies. But when I returned home I looked at my child and I cried.”

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Zia Zaki says the Afghan consulate is struggling with the numbers of migrants seeking help

Nowrouz spent days calling relatives back home. “I had to borrow money to repatriate my family back to Afghanistan,” he says.

The consulate told Nowrouz that the bodies of his wife and children were kept in Bursa, a town 300km (187 miles) inland from where the accident happened.

He hired a car for the four-hour drive, leaving in the middle of the night. He also booked flights to Kabul for the following evening.

But once in Bursa, he could find only the bodies of his wife and son; his baby daughter was missing. With flights arranged he had little choice but to leave her behind to be buried in one of Bursa’s cemeteries.

Bringing bodies back from Turkey

  • Bodies held for 15 days in morgue nearest to accident
  • Forensic departments establish cause of death and identities if possible
  • Unidentified victims are buried in local cemeteries by Turkish authorities
  • If a body is claimed, embassies help families to retrieve their loved ones
  • Certificates are issued to allow transport from morgue and through customs for repatriation by air or overland

The imam

At Bursa’s Kent cemetery, Imam Neshet Kaya performs the funeral rites for deceased migrants.

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Imam Neshet Kaya and cemetery workers bury an unidentified refugee child

“I just buried a child who has no name and we don’t know who he was,” he says. “He was buried here surrounded by me and a few cemetery workers. Today we are his brother, sister and his family.”

Whether he buried Nowrouz’s daughter here is impossible to know.

Many of the migrant victims are Muslim and the imam says he makes sure they are buried properly.

“We go to hospital to pick up the body and bring it here to perform the Islamic rituals, washing them and wrapping them in a shroud,” he says. “Later we perform the prayers at the mosque.”

The cemetery keeps records of each grave together with available documents, photos or DNA records to allow possible identification and exhumation if a body is claimed at a later date.

The airline

For Afghans taking a body home means travelling by air.

In Bursa, Mr Nowrouz bought coffins for his wife and son, hired an ambulance and headed back to Ataturk airport for the flight to Kabul.

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Nowrouz paid more than $2,000 to fly the bodies of his wife and son home from Istanbul airport

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Sohila Shalizai says the number of bodies repatriated with Ariana airlines has increased over the past year

At Istanbul airport, Sohila Shalizai runs the office of Afghanistan’s Ariana airline – the tragedy of migrants’ deaths has become overwhelming here too.

“Lately we have been carrying at least two or three, even up to seven bodies on each flight,” Ms Rizi says. “Sometimes we can’t cope with the numbers of bodies that come to us and we have refer people to Turkish airlines. Sometimes most of our cargo is coffins.”

Her colleague, Khan Mohamad, says the airline has transported 70 bodies back to Afghanistan over the last 12 months.

“I just returned from customs where I have processed another coffin which came from Izmir.”

Sometimes, Mohamad says, families don’t have the money. “They lose it all when they capsize or the smugglers take it. Last time we sent four bodies to Afghanistan and the relatives still need to pay.”

A family not united

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The funeral was held in Kabul – here preparations are seen getting under way for dozens of guests who attended

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Nowrouz tending the graves of his family at a cemetery in Kabul

Nilufar and Mohammad were buried the day they arrived back in Kabul. But even in grief the family is not united.

“I wanted to bring my daughter’s body to Afghanistan too”, Nowrouz says, “but because the whole process took so long I couldn’t find her.”

Compounding the heartbreak of losing his family, he now has debts to worry about as well.

Having borrowed $8,500 to cover the costs of the ordeal, Nowrouz has been left bankrupt by a journey that already cost him everything.

Additional reporting from Ismael Shahamat and Johannes Dell

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