Desperate and nameless, refugee graves in Italy evoke tragedy of deadly sea crossings

CATANIA, Sicily (CN) — In five rows in a poor field at the rear of the overcrowded and beautifully organized municipal cemetery in Catania, Italy, the remains of dozens of migrants who drowned at sea lie buried in the saddest of graves.

There are no flowers here and almost no names. The lives buried in this field seem oddly more alive than dead, as if their journeys across the Mediterranean Sea were unfinished.

“The bodies found are generally unknown. Their provenance is unknown,” said Kheit Abdelhafid, imam in Catania and president of the Islamic Community of Sicily, in a telephone interview.

Abdelhafid traveled to cemeteries across Sicily to offer prayers to those who perished in the Mediterranean. Since the religious beliefs of the deceased are mostly unknown, he said Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives may be at the graves to offer joint prayer. When he knows that a deceased migrant was a Muslim, he recites an Islamic prayer.

He is also pushing for the construction of a cemetery dedicated to drowned refugees, but so far the Sicilian and Italian governments have balked at the idea.

“We wanted to call the cemetery ‘the martyrs of the sea’,” he said.

He said such a cemetery could also become a focal point for efforts to identify the dead and a starting point for families seeking to find the remains of loved ones.

In Catania, the graves are marked by simple metal posts that lean back and forth. At the top of the posts are metal plates on which are inscribed what little is known about the deceased.

Only six of the approximately 75 cemeteries bear names: Touray Keeba, Mustafa Jumaa, Sid Camara, Romini Hossain, Malik Abdel, Muyasar Bashtawi.

The plaques include the date a body was found in the sea. A few have the name of the ship that snatched them from the Mediterranean Sea. A few indicate the sex of a deceased migrant. Basically, the remains are numbered in the slim hope that they will one day be found by loved ones.

“It’s sad, so sad,” Abdelhafid said. “Each of these people has a story behind them.”

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and war in Africa and Asia have sought to enter the European Union on inflatable rafts, dinghies and unseaworthy boats and overloaded. Typically, the ships depart from Libya and Tunisia with the occupants in the hope of being picked up at sea or reaching Lampedusa, a Sicilian island near North Africa, or the coasts of Sicily.

But this journey is also the deadliest migration route in the world.

“This is due both to the length of overseas travel, which can take days, as well as increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search and rescue capacity and restrictions on the rescue work of NGOs,” the International Organization for Migration says on its website.

The UN agency says 24,144 people have died or gone missing during attempts to cross the Mediterranean since 2014. The vast majority of those deaths – 19,520 – have been in the central Mediterranean and the bodies of most of those who died have not been recovered, according to agency figures. Last year, 1,864 people died trying to cross the central Mediterranean.

The burial of the dead is therefore the responsibility of the Italian authorities.

When a body is recovered from the sea, it is sent to the local medical examiner’s office. Where possible, DNA is collected and efforts are made to trace relatives, although this has proven extremely difficult.

For example, immense efforts have been made to recover and identify the remains of nearly 800 migrants who died after a large fishing boat sank on April 18, 2015, in one of the world’s worst maritime disasters involving a ship carrying migrants.

Inside the ship’s hull, more than 500 corpses, 30,000 mixed bones and hundreds of skulls were recovered, but only a handful of bodies were identified, according to a 2021 report by The Guardian newspaper.

It’s up to local authorities in Italy to decide where to place the bodies pulled from the sea. Courthouse News went looking for a few of these graves and found they were poorly documented.

In Patti, a Sicilian town near Messina, authorities, including the town’s mayor, were unable to help find the graves of four migrants buried in the town’s cemetery. The migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in 2015 and were brought to Messina before being buried in Patti and another town in Messina called Forza d’Agrò, according to ANSA, an Italian state-run news agency.

There are examples of migrant graves that are not overlooked.

In Calabria, for example, the graves of migrants buried in the Badolato cemetery are decorated with colorful images.

The grave of an unidentified African man who died in 2016 is adorned with the image of an overcrowded ship on the sea and the word “Why?” written on.

Also in Badolato, the grave of Akyol Diyar, a Kurdish boy, is illuminated by the image of a schoolboy walking towards the sun with a schoolbag on his back. Above the image are the words: ‘Goodbye little Kurdish boy, innocent victim of the senseless wars of this mad world. Continue your journey of dreams and freedom!

Badolato rose to fame after launching a program to revive its dying medieval old town in the hills by providing housing and work for Kurdish refugees who arrived on a boat that landed on the shores near the town.

Abdelhafid said the world’s attention has focused on the issue of refugee burials after more than 360 African migrants drowned when an overloaded fishing boat capsized off Lampedusa on October 3, 2013.

“After that, people started talking about it, newspapers started writing about it, and discussions started to ensure these dead had a dignified burial,” he said.

Until then, the bodies of migrants were often buried in Lampedusa, but with so many dead to be buried, the bodies were taken to other Sicilian cemeteries.

Abdelhafid said it was important to do more to honor and identify deceased migrants, but above all to prevent their deaths.

“It is essential to ensure safe travel for these people,” he said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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