LESBOS, Greece — She drowned trying to reach Europe, but her headless body was never identified. Her tombstone will bear no name.
Like others buried beside her in an olive grove on the Greek island of Lesbos, the marble plaque on her unmarked grave will proclaim the victim “Unknown.” Her epitaph an identification number, the date she washed ashore, and her presumed age: 1.
Sixty-four earthen graves have been dug in this land plot for refugees and migrants who drowned crossing the Aegean Sea trying to reach Europe. Just 27 of those are named.
The others state plainly: “Unknown Man, Aged 35, No 221, 19/11/2015”; “Unknown Boy, Aged 7, No 40, 19/11/2015”; and “Unknown Boy, Aged 12, No 171, 19/11/2015.”
More than half a million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries plagued by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have arrived on Lesbos since last year hoping to continue to northern Europe.
In 2015, the deadliest year for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, more than 3,700 people are known to have drowned or gone missing, the International Organization for Migration says. The actual number is believed to be higher.
Hundreds have drowned in Greece since arrivals surged last summer. So many, in fact, that the section of one Lesbos cemetery designated for refugees and migrants has long run out of space.
Locals conclude that entire families have drowned in the same shipwreck, leaving no survivors to identify the victims. They recall bodies found severely decomposed after days at sea, or dismembered from crashing against the rocks of the island’s long coastline.
“It doesn’t feel right, seeing a child of unknown identity, an unknown child, a child of ‘roughly this age,’” said Alekos Karagiorgis, a caretaker who has transported hundreds of corpses from beaches across the island to the morgue since summer.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s your job. It breaks your heart,” Karagiorgis said.
Remote beaches on the island still bear the traces of arrivals: flimsy, discarded life jackets are strewn across the rocks, as well as the odd shoe, a jacket, milk formula and nappies.
Though fewer than 10 nautical miles separate the Aegean island of Lesbos from Turkey, hundreds have drowned trying to make it across on overcrowded rubber or wooden boats.
In October, following a nighttime shipwreck from which more than 200 were rescued but dozens died, the St. Panteleimon cemetery ran out of space to bury the dead and the island’s morgue had to bring in a container to keep the bodies.
That prompted local authorities to set aside a plot of land in one village for burials.
There Mustafa Dawa, a boyish-looking 30-year-old from Egypt who has been in Greece since his 20s, has taken on the unofficial role of washing, shrouding and burying the dead, their heads faced towards Mecca.
“I did 57 funerals in seven days. In one day I did 11,” he said, recalling spending a few minutes crouched in the grave of the headless child, weighed down by emotion.
Dawa said it’s the least he can do. “I can’t stop the war there, I can’t make them cross [to Europe] legally. All I can do is bury them.”
Since the October shipwreck, Theodoros Nousias, a coroner, has photographed and taken DNA samples of more than 200 victims who drowned off Lesbos and the island of Samos, keeping an archive in case relatives seek them out.
One body washed ashore this week, but it’s anyone’s guess when or where the person died, he said. Whenever the wind blows, those who drowned in Turkey are washed ashore on Lesbos.
While some victims have been identified through photographs, others are simply unidentifiable, he said, except through DNA. Only one of hundreds has been traced this way so far, Nousias said.
Like Nousias, Karagiorgis, the caretaker, and others on Lesbos faced daily with the reality of death, hope for the day the victims will be identified.
“I hope they trace them through DNA so that these people can rest,” Karagiorgis said. “So that their souls can rest in peace, the mother or father searching for this person finds peace and says, ‘you know what, they chose to do this and they drowned this way.’”