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On Aug. 23, I stood inside what was left of a burned shack on a hillside. The air was heavy with smoke, but after hours of reporting I had given up covering my mouth and nose.
The soles of my feet were hot inside the boots that had carried me on reporting assignments to Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and now Evros, the region in northeastern Greece that borders Turkey where, two days earlier, a wildfire began to rage.
It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and small flames were still flickering inside the hollowed-out trunks of ancient trees. I’d been traveling with Alexandros Avramidis, a photographer for Reuters, for safety.
We sank into silence and took in the sight: The sky was a deep, sickly orange. Plumes of smoke rolled over the hills nearby. Ash, broken tiles and a mug — somehow, whole — littered the ground beneath my feet. And there were bones —fragments of a human tibia, though I didn’t know it at the time.
I learned later that day that three asylum seekers, fleeing Syria for a better life in Europe, had burned to death where I had stood. I have been around death in my journalism career, but this was different. The decimation of the natural environment combined with the horrific deaths felt more profound, more total.
That morning I had rushed from Brussels, where I’m based, to this corner of Greece. The day before, the Greek authorities had announced the discovery of 18 charred bodies, presumed to be asylum seekers, as no one had declared missing persons locally. I wanted to report on the rapidly advancing fire — it would soon be declared Europe’s largest on record — and to learn more about the victims.
My role at The New York Times is to cover the European Union — mostly policy and politics — but I am also a Greek national, and I have deep experience covering migration. I’ve spent most of the past six months writing about migrants being brutalized at Europe’s borders, many dying in horrid circumstances. This trip was another data point in what has emerged as a pattern: Asylum seekers are facing growing hostility in their desperate search for a future and safety in Europe.
Dr. Pavlos Pavlidis, the coroner who provided crucial information for my article, told me he was optimistic that, despite the unrecognizable state of the charred bodies, the remains would be identified and returned to the victims’ families.
Over the next few weeks, I worked closely with Karam Shoumali, a Syrian reporter who was indispensable in tracking down sources, as well as Dr. Jan Bikker, a Dutch forensic anthropologist. Six years ago, Dr. Bikker moved to Athens to help migrant families find lost loved ones, offering his services for free.
Together we tried to piece together information. As the only one of us who spoke Greek, I called every Greek governmental department involved to learn of any progress in the identification of the bodies.
At the morgue, I examined the few pieces of evidence that survived: a ring with a square black stone (I sketched a drawing in my notebook); a blackened men’s wristwatch (no discernible markings); and two smartphones (one a white Samsung, the other melted beyond recognition). Some of those details were helpful in our quest to learn who the victims were.
Early on, we found Qusai al-Ahmad, a 31-year-old engineer from Aleppo, Syria, who had been living in Norway as a refugee and was looking for his younger brother Basel. He flew from Oslo to Athens to provide a DNA sample, which would prove key to determining the identities of the 18 people. Qusai knew that his brother had been traveling as part of a group of Syrian men and boys; he helped us build a list of people in the group. One was 13.
Over WhatsApp, Qusai shared videos and voice messages Basel had sent him, as well as locations that he had shared along his route. Qusai was in touch with other relatives who also started forwarding us information from their last communications with their loved ones. Many relatives were in denial that their families were dead — some still are.
Dr. Bikker and I spoke daily about the latest information, as he fielded calls from other relatives who worried that their family members were among the 18. Those calls reminded me that my reporting was part of another effort: to work out what happened, so that mothers could one day bury their sons.
On Sept. 6, Qusai’s DNA came back as a match to one of the 18 bodies. His text on the evening of Sept. 6 was laconic: “They told me today that my brother was among the victims. Tomorrow I am traveling to Greece.”
When I met him at Athens International Airport two days later, he was with four of his cousins and Dr. Bikker. Together with the photographer Byron Smith, we got on a flight to Alexandroupolis, Evros’s largest city.
Over the next 12 hours, I drove 150 miles around the region, translated from Greek to English for Qusai (his youngest cousin translated in Arabic) and the other way around.
Qusai asked me to take him where Basel had died. I thought about the half-hour hike up the hill (the area was inaccessible by road) and wondered if he’d make it.
But I had discounted the sheer energy unleashed by grief. Being in its presence was humbling. We made the hike.
Before heading home that evening, I accompanied Qusai to the fire department, where he needed to provide a copy of his passport to retrieve his brother’s remains.
A lieutenant fire colonel there, Dimitris Lykidis, was friendly. He asked me to write down all of the relevant information in Greek. “I just want to make sure it’s all 100 percent correct, so he doesn’t need to come back here,” he said.
For a fleeting moment, I felt proud that I’d kept it together all day.
It was only when Lt. Lykidis told me in Greek — and I told Qusai’s cousin Mahmoud in English, and Mahmoud told Qusai in Arabic — that he had collected Basel’s body from the hills, and Qusai and Lt. Lykidis embraced in tears, that I had to leave the room to regain my composure.
I still had a story to write.