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Photos, Clothes And Bones: Identifying Migrants Lost At Sea

A forensic expert heads a dedicated team working to try to identify those who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. It is often to simply close the wounds of broken-hearted loved ones back at home.

Closure for the families of those who didn't make it across the Mediterranean.
Closure for the families of those who didn't make it across the Mediterranean.
Mattia Feltri

At first sight, he must have been 18 years old. But look at the iliac crest on the upper pelvis, says one of the doctors. The iliac crest still hadn't fused, as occurs in adults: The boy was younger, perhaps 16. Then, they go for the teeth, extracting the second and third molars. The third had a root that was just beginning to form. So, 14 years old. They strip him. Coat, vest, shirt, jeans. Between the linings of the coat, they felt something hard and square. They unstitch it. It's a report card written in Arabic and French. Math, physical sciences. It must have been the most precious thing that he owned. It was the pass that would help him grow up in Europe.

Cristina Cattaneo, a native of Casale Monferrato, is a professor of legal medicine at the University of Milan, and director of Labanof, a laboratory of forensic anthropology and odontology. Her expertise has been put to a five-year-long effort: that of givgin a name to those who died anonymously. The project is done for the same eternal reason Priam begged Achilles to return the body of his son, Hector, so he could bury him. And Cattaneo has now published a book about the grim but necessary process, called Naufraghi senza volto (Faceless Shipwrecked).

Numerous requests have arrived recently from Eritreans and Syrians, notes a colleague from the Red Cross, explaining how relatives awaiting news of their loved ones begin to worry when they don't hear anything — ultimately left to wonder whether they're dead or alive. For years, people died while crossing the Mediterranean and their bodies remained at the bottom of the sea, or buried under nameless headstones in some random piece of land. Since 2001, an estimated 30,000 would-be immigrants have died while trying to make the crossing.

Why not throw a crown of flowers into the sea, and be done?

"Nobody ever thought to do for them what we do for ourselves," Cattaneo explained. "To give them an identity and give a response to the mothers, children, grandparents, to let them know if they should keep waiting or make their peace."

Since Cattaneo's group was formed in 2013, requests have arrived from all over Europe. A woman looks at a photo in a database, searching for a brother who she'd talked to two hours prior to leaving Libya; she stops and concentrates on a piece of paper with telephone numbers written. It's his handwriting, she says, this is his 4 and this is his 7 — and she bursts into tears. Another woman arrives with an envelope containing a lock of hair from an Eritrean friend, saying that she hadn't received any news of her son and hoped that the lock of hair would help find a DNA match. A man was sure that his sister had drowned, but without a death certificate, wasn't able to adopt his nephew, a child who was still in Somalia.

"Why do you do all of this?" a friend asks Cristina. "Why not throw a crown of flowers into the sea, and be done?" She responds, "If you thought your daughter was in a plane that had crashed into the sea, would you throw flowers, or would you try to find out for sure?"

And then came April 18, 2015: A crammed boat sank off the coast of Sicily, and more than 1,000 people are believed to have died. For two months, in a navy warehouse in the Sicilian town of Melilli, Cristina worked with her team to identify 525 bodies. There was the boy who had sewn a bag containing dirt from his homeland, Eritrea, into his jacket. There were Korans, Buddhist rosaries, an Orthodox cross. There were skulls and the small bones of a lone hand. There was a tiny, round tooth of a six-year-old boy. There were library cards, pictures of smiling friends, a Real Madrid jersey.

"The dead speak better than the living," says Cristina. "You can go to survivors and listen to them. But they will never be able to explain as well as the dead."

This Italian team was the first to make such an effort, for all those seeking to make it to Europe. Multiple public institutions have collaborated, and the first results are coming in. The mother of the child left in Somalia was identified, allowing for the uncle to adopt his nephew. Others know they should no longer wait for news of a father or child or sibling — and can now move on to praying for their souls.

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