Greek coroner Pavlos Pavlidis autopsies all the bodies of migrants found in the Evros region, bordering Turkey. He tries to collect as much information as possible on each of them and keeps all their personal belongings to give them back their name and their dignity.
Pavlos Pavlidis smokes cigarette after cigarette. In his office at the Alexandropoulis hospital, the ashtrays are overflowing and the smell of tobacco fills the room. The fifty-year-old coroner obviously has no intention of opening the windows. "We smoke a lot here," he says. Pavlidis does not say much but his answers are methodical.
"I've been working here since 2000, that was the year I started receiving the first bodies of unidentified migrants," he explains, his eyes fixed on his computer. Alexandropoulis is the capital of the Evros region, only a few kilometers from the Turkish border. It is there that migrants take the most risks as they try to enter the European Union by means of the Evros River.
"Since the beginning of the year, 38 bodies have arrived at the hospital in my department, 34 were men and 4 were women," continues the coroner. "Many of these people cross the Evros in winter. The water rises, the currents are strong, there are a lot of branches. They drown," he summarizes soberly. "Last year, 36 bodies were brought here. And the numbers for 2021 may still increase. Winter hasn't even started."
Bodies found 20 days after their death
At the back of the room, on a large screen, the bodies of migrants scroll by. They are in an advanced state of decomposition. It is hard to look at them. Pavlidis apologizes. Damaged bodies are his daily life.
"I take pictures of everything. It's my job. As far as migrants are concerned, the bodies are particularly deteriorated because they are sometimes found 20 days after their death," he explains. Densely forested, the Evros region is under the control of the army and has no inhabitants. With no civilians around, "the victims are not immediately found." And then there are the effects of death in water and the body staying in water. "The water spoils everything. It deforms faces very quickly."
All unidentified bodies found at the border or in the region are brought to Pavlidis's department. "The protocol is always the same: the police call me when they find a body and send the corpse to the hospital. We do not work alone, we collaborate with the authorities. We exchange data for the investigation: initial findings, presence of documents on the corpse, time of discovery, and so forth."
The causes of death of most of the bodies that end up under his scalpel are often the same: drowning, then, but also hypothermia and road accidents. "Those who manage to make the crossing of the Evros come out of the river cold and wet. They then get lost in the surrounding mountains. They hide from the police. They die of the cold."
On his autopsy table, Pavlos knows that the face he is looking at has nothing to do with the person when he was alive. "So I photograph specific elements, scars, tattoos..." The coroner carefully lists everything he finds on the body: watches, necklaces, cell phones, rings... "I have no real information, I don't know who they are, where they came from. These clues don't give them a name but they do make the person unique."
Pavlidis is careful to put little emotion in his work, "I do what I have to do, it's my job". He hides an impressive humanity under a methodical coldness. Far from simply autopsying bodies, the doctor is striving to give them back their identity.
He keeps the bodies longer than necessary: between six months and a year. "This gives the families time to come forward," he explains. "They have to search for the missing person, find clues and get to Alexandropoulis. I give them that time." Right now, 25 bodies are waiting in a refrigerated container at the hospital.
Every week, he receives emails from desperate families. He takes the time to answer each one. "Doctor, I am looking for my brother who probably drowned in the Evros on August 22, 2021. You told me on September 7 that only one body had been found. Are there any others since then?", reads the email from one of them, sent on October 3. "I thank you very much and beg you to help me find my brother so that we can bury him with dignity," it finishes.
'I have no data on the bodies found on the Turkish side'
In the best-case scenario, Pavlidis eventually manages to connect the body with a name. "Then I can return the body to their family." But this is a rare case.
For each body, he follows the same procedure. Pavlidis stores the DNA, classifies each object in envelopes stored in files, according to a precise protocol. He notes each element he finds in a register, counts all the deaths and updates his figures.
The doctor regrets that there is a lack of cooperation by the Turkish authorities. "I don't have precise figures because I don't have a count of the bodies found on the other side of the border. I only have those found on the Greek side. How many die on the other side? I won't know," he laments. Over the past 20 years, the coroner says he has autopsied 500 people.
Unidentified and unclaimed bodies are sent to an anonymous migrant cemetery in a small village 50 kilometers away. Lost in the hills, it has about 200 graves. Each one is marked with a white stone.
Charlotte Boitiaux, special correspondent in Greece