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In Izmir, Burying The Migrants Who Died Along The Way

Near the western coast of Turkey, a humble imam recites too many lonely prayers in a cemetery that is filling with nameless victims of the perilous migrant route to Europe.

In Izmir, Burying The Migrants Who Died Along The Way
Ahmet Altan (right) praying at a refugee burial in Dogancay Cemetary, Bayrakli, Izmir
Pinar Ogunc

IZMIR — It is both hard and easy to talk about death with a religious man.

We have been chatting for awhile when, sensing a kindness in Ahmet Altan that would prevent him from perceiving my question as an insult, I finally ask him: Are there ever times when you want to rebel against all of this?

Altan has been an imam working at cemeteries for 35 years. For the past six months, he's been at the Dogancay Cemetary at Bayrakli, Izmir, near the western coast of Turkey.

The coroner's car takes us up the hills, covered in the green of spring and the yellow of weaver's broom, to the potters' field. Lot no. 412 has been set aside for the graves of refugees. These are marked with five-digit numbers on black plaques. Most are for those refugees who did not survive the boat ride they embarked on with dreams of reaching European shores.

Does Altan rebel when he sees the bodies of those who've fled from war, risking everything en route to Europe in pursuit of the simple dream of a better life? Does he rebel after saying funeral prayers for the three-year-olds and five-year-olds he must bury all too often?

He hesitates. "When I see them, I am ashamed of my humanity," he says. "Those who think only of their own children tarnish the future of other children. We are sending those who should be running and playing to their graves. That is not humanity."

A different path

Altan has lived in Izmir for 40 years. Originally, his dream was to teach Arabic or train hafizs — those who have memorized the Koran — but he ended up becoming an imam and choosing to serve cemeteries. "Anyone," he says, "can be an imam at a mosque."

His uncle, also a man of religion, had advised him long ago: "You will see people coming from the mosque and others coming from the bar. Treat them equally."

Altan reserves a special care for his work in the refugee section of the cemetery, and has personally developed a planning system there that he hopes will become more widely used. He isn't aware of anyone else doing the same thing.

The cemetery plots are organized according to a map section system, but sometimes as many as 500 graves can be squeezed into a single section, leading to mix-ups, especially in the potters' field. Altan shows me how, using his system — which carefully documents forensic science reports, labeled boxes and hand-drawn maps — people may one day be able to reunite with loved ones, even if it means doing so at a grave site.

We open the book of records for the dead, and check the boxes that say "unknown." Altan is proud when all the numbers match.

He shows me the marble-covered graves of two brothers, one eight months old, and the other two years old. They were eventually identified by relatives. In spite of it all, Altan seems to find some comfort in assigning names to tombstones, and he wants me to know that.

Just then, his phone rings: He learns that he will need to recite funeral prayers for a one-month-old Syrian girl. Her 23-year-old father, Mohama from Damascus, is waiting down the hill. The newborn, named Lean, was his first child, and she was born sick. Mohama is unemployed and just getting by in Izmir's Esrefpasa neighborhood with some extended family. A friend is found, and the baby is laid to rest with a funeral prayer said in the presence of two people, marking her brief time on this earth.

The coast guard delivers corpses to the prosecutor's office, and they are then transferred to the forensics office for DNA and other tests. Bodies remain there for 15 days in case relatives turn up to claim them. After that, the dead are sent to the Dogancay Cemetery.

Women and children

Altan says there are 330 dead bodies known to be at the bottom of the Aegean. There are 136 "unknown" people buried in the refugee section of the cemetery, while the total number of refugee graves there is more than 400. Eight people whose names were initially unknown were later identified thanks to DNA tests. Seventeen members of the Ismetullah family sailed the Aegean, for example, and four of them died, later to be located at the cemetery's lot 412.

Two children and a woman were buried here just last week. In fact, Altan says 60% of the dead are women and children. There was, he recalls, a woman who got pregnant in Aleppo, gave birth in Konya, drowned in the Aegean with her child and was then buried at this cemetery. He will never forget it.

Many of the graves are recent, from this year. Altan showed me some forensics reports in which even the gender of the dead was undetermined because fish had eaten the corpses.

The imam has saved a separate area of the cemetery for children under age two. "Otherwise, they would get squashed by the grownups," he manages to say. This sort of statement is impossible to respond to.

"Truthfully, I am affected by this a lot," he says. "I thank my wife for providing me with psychological support." Altan has four children of his own, two of whom are married.

Why do these people risk their lives to go to Europe, when they have already managed to reach Turkey? I ask him, wondering how he sees this. "Isn't it so sad?" he says. "Muslims are fleeing from a country of Muslims. We should think about that. They say it is to save their children, so they risk everything."

Why can't they save their children here?

"Don't get me started on that," Altan replies. "My job is not to bring people here, it is to take good care of them once they arrive. The rest is politics. I should keep quiet."

In a supportive tone, he mentions the name of Izmir Mayor Aziz Kocaoglu a few times. Then he mentions Izmir governor Mustafa Toprak. Perhaps Altan's choices and status as a civil servant bring that kind of balance. His pain must truly be deep, since in the course of our conversation he also says the officials "can negotiate over people's lives."

The refugee graves have regular visitors, especially on Fridays and Sundays. There are also people who bury their own dead and then visit the refugee graves. The Aegean Sea is at the other end of the valley from the cemetery, the World Peace Monument lies in between.

"The peace in their country did not happen. They set sail in search of serenity, which they also did not find," he says. "Now they lie here across the sea and before this monument for peace."

Turkey's deal with the EU regarding the deportation of refugees has been in effect since March 20 and, combined with harsh weather conditions, it has contributed to a decrease in the number of boats sailing for Greece in the past week.

Now, a new era is beginning. How will the process of returning refugees to Turkey work? Will new routes emerge in the Aegean as Europe surrounds itself with barbed wire, and the poverty inside refugee camps increases?

Altan believes people will try to reach Europe no matter what. He thinks those who have nothing to lose will do anything.

He also knows this much: When people are brought back to Turkey from Europe, some who left their dead on the shores of the Aegean will arrive here searching for their relatives' graves. Altan will check his map and tell them where to look.

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