Widowed by Europe’s Borders

By Gabriela Ramirez and Tina Xu

Samrin and Sanooja were high school classmates. Both born in 1990, they grew up together in Kalpitiya in Sri Lanka. When they turned 20, Sanooja was studying to be a schoolteacher, while Samrin left town for work. Samrin returned home in 2017 and they got married, her in a white headscarf and indigo-sleeved dress, him in a matching indigo suit. Their son Haashim was born a year later.

Samrin was a difficult person to fall in love with because he was so ambitious, says Sanooja over a video call from her home. But part of loving him, she explains, meant supporting him even in his hardest decisions. One of these decisions was to take a plane to Moscow, then to travel to Europe and send money home. “He went to keep us happy, to make us good.”

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Their last day together is a precious memory. In their last photos together, Haashim sits laughing on Samrin’s lap. That night, Samrin squeezed his son and wept. The next day he put on a pair of blue Converse All-Stars, packed a black backpack, and set out. It was June 26, 2022. He was 32 years old.

Things did not go according to plan. He boarded a bus from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, but the fake Schengen visa that they paid so much money for was rejected at the Finnish border. He pivoted to plan B: He could go to Belarus, where he didn’t need a visa, and could cross the border to Lithuania, in the Schengen zone.

When Samrin checked into the Old Town Trio Hotel in Vilnius on 16 August 2022, the first thing he did was call home: Sanooja was relieved to hear his voice. He told her about his eight days crossing the forest between Belarus and Lithuania. Days without food,  drinking dirty water. He told her especially about the pains in his stomach as he walked in the forest, due to his recent surgery to remove kidney stones. Sometimes he would urinate blood.

But he was in the European Union. He bought a plane ticket for a departure to Paris in four days, the city where he hoped to make his new life. What happened next is unclear. This is what Sanooja knows: On the third day, Samrin walked into the hotel lobby, and the manager called security. Plainclothes officers shuttled him into a car and whisked him 50 kilometers back once more to the Belarusian border.

Samrin forest sent by family

It was already dark when Samrin was left alone in the woods. He had no backpack, sleeping bag, or food. His phone was running out of battery. The next morning, Samrin came online briefly to send Sanooja the final message on WhatsApp: “No water, I think I’ll die. Thangam, I love you.”

That was the beginning of a deafening silence that stretched four and a half months. When she gets to this part of the story, Sanooja apologizes that she simply cannot describe it. Her eyes glaze and flit upward.

The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović asserts that families have a “right to truth” surrounding the fates of their loved ones who disappear en route to Europe. In 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “prompt and effective identification processes” to connect the bodies to the people searching for them. More than two years on, Mijatović tells us not much has been done, and the issue is a “legislative void.”

As part of the Border Graves Investigation, we followed the stories of those more than 29,000 people who have died on European migration routes in the last decade, most of whose names remain unknown.

Samrin’s grave covered in snow. Photo Shared by family.

We verified 1,015 unmarked graves across 65 cemeteries, representing individuals who attempted to enter the EU and were laid to rest without identification along European borders in Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta, France, and Croatia.

We spoke with families, coroners, forensic scientists, NGOs and pathologists, as well as over a dozen humanitarian workers, lawyers, and policymakers to piece together what happens after something goes fatally wrong on Europe’s borders—and who is responsible.

For this report we focused on those who have disappeared in the latest frontier of the European migration crisis: the forest that covers the borders between Belarus and the EU (Lithuania, Poland, Latvia).

Who counts the dead?

The forest along the Belarusian border is a dense landscape of underbrush, fallen trees, mosses and swamps. Spanning hundreds of square kilometers across the borders with Lithuania and Poland, the forest became an unexpected hotspot when Belarus began issuing visas and opening direct flights to Minsk in the summer of 2021.

Polish fence by Gabriela Ramirez

Since 2021, thousands of people, mostly from Middle Eastern and African countries, have sought to enter the EU from Belarus borders. Hundreds of people have been caught in the one-kilometer no man’s land between Belarusian territory and the EU border fence, chased back and forth by border guards on both sides under threat of violence.

For the last two years, Poland and Lithuania have ramped up on “pushbacks,” in which border guards deport migrants immediately without the opportunity to ask for asylum, a process that is growing in popularity across Europe despite violating international law. Poland reports having conducted 78,010 pushbacks since the start of the crisis, and Lithuania 21,960. Samrin was one of these cases.

While these two countries publish precise daily statistics for pushbacks, they do not publish data for deaths at the border, nor did people report missing. “National states want to do this job secretly,” explains Tomas Tomilinas, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament. “We are on the margins of the law and constitution here, any government pushing people back is trying to avoid publicity on this topic.”

Official data is an intentional void. Both the Polish and Lithuanian Border Guards declined to share any numbers with us. However, there are organizations striving to keep watch: Humanitarian groups in Poland, including Grupa Granica and Podlaskie Humanitarian Emergency Service (POPH), have documented 52 deaths on the Poland-Belarus border since 2021, and are tracking at least 16 unidentified bodies.

In Lithuania, the humanitarian group Sienos Grupė has documented 10 deaths, including three minors who died while in detention centers, and three others who died in car accidents when chased by local authorities after crossing the border region. In Belarus, the NGO Human Constanta reports that 33 have died according to government data shared with them, but it was not recorded whether these bodies have been identified, and whether or where they are buried.

Humanitarian groups in the region have compiled a list of more than 300 people reported missing. The organizations emphasize that their numbers are incomplete, as they have neither the access nor the capacity to monitor the full extent of the problem.

Where to turn?

It was already past midnight in Sri Lanka when Samrin stopped responding to messages. From 8,000 km away, Sanooja tried to call for help. She found his last known coordinates on Find My iPhone, a blue dot in Trokenikskiy, Grodno region, just across the Belarus side of the border, and tried to report him missing.

The Lithuanian and Belarussian border guards picked up the phone. She begged them to find him, even if it meant arresting him, putting him in a detention camp, or even deporting him. They responded that he had to call himself. It was baffling: How can a missing person call to report themselves?

She called the migrant detention camps, where people are often detained without access to a phone for months. Maybe he was locked up somewhere. As soon as she said “hello,” they responded, “no English,” and hung up. She emailed them instead, no response. She emailed UNHCR and the Red Cross Society. Both institutions said they had no information about the case. She emailed the police, who responded a week later that they had no information.

Sanooja had run into the rude reality that there is no authority responsible for, nor prepared to respond to, such inquiries. Even organizations dedicated to working with migrants would or could not respond to basic queries in English.

Weeks passed, and in the terrible silence, Sanooja began to wonder if he could be in another country in the region. She broadened her search to all four countries. There was no Sri Lankan Embassy in either Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, or Latvia, so she emailed the closest one in Sweden. Then, she went on Facebook. That’s how she found the account of Sienos Grupė, and sent them a message.

Like many local humanitarian groups across the region, Sienos Grupė is a small team of four part-time staff and around 30 volunteers. The group banded together in 2021 to respond to calls for help through WhatsApp and Facebook and drop off vital supplies in the forest, such as food, water, power banks, and dry clothes.

“There is a body, please go”

Local volunteer groups were doing their best to aid the living, but it wasn’t long before they were being contacted to find the missing or the dead. On the Polish border, everyone has heard of Piotr Czaban. A local journalist and activist. He is known as the man who can help find the bodies of people left behind in the woods, a reputation he has lived up to many times this year.

He sits on the edge of a weathered truck in a forest near Sokolka, a city near the Polish-Belarusian border region. Navigating the thick undergrowth with ease in weathered jeans and trekking boots, he recounts the first search he coordinated back in February 2022. He received a message on Facebook from a Syrian man in Belarus: “There is a body in the forest, here is the place, please go.”

Piotr was taken off guard. He asked his friends in the police what to do, and they told him the best way was to go himself, take photos, and then call the police. However, the border guards had closed the border region to all non-residents, including journalists and humanitarian workers, so he couldn’t pass the police checkpoints for the area where the body lay.

So Piotr made another call. This time to Rafal Kowalczyk, the 53-year-old director of the Mammal Research Institute, who has worked in the Bialowieza Forest for three decades. Kowalczyk was up for the task. As a wildlife expert, Kowalczyk had access to the restricted forest area, and now he ventured into the woods not to track bison, but to follow the clues sent by a despairing Syrian man.

In the swamp, Kowalczyk found 26-year-old Ahmed Al-Shawafi from Yemen, barefoot and half-submerged in the water, and one shoe in the mud nearby. It was difficult for Kowalczyk to point his camera at the face of a dead man, but he did. Piotr forwarded the photos Rafal had taken to the police, with a straightforward message: “We know there’s a body there. Now you have to go.”

But what if Ahmed could have been found earlier, even alive?

“The police have no competence”

Until there is a photo of a dead body, police and border guards have often declined to search for missing or dead migrants. Ahmed’s traveling companions, including the man who contacted Piotr, had personally begged Polish border guards for emergency medical aid for Ahmed. They had left Ahmed by the river in the throes of hypothermia to ask for help. Instead of calling paramedics, or searching for Ahmed at all, the border guards pushed the group back to Belarus, leaving Ahmed to die alone in the forest.

In our investigation, we heard of at least three other deaths that are eerily similar to Ahmed’s: an Ethiopian woman Mahlet Kassa, 28; a Syrian man Mohammed Yasim, 32; and a Yemeni man Dr. Ibrahim Jaber Ahmed Dihiya, 33. In all three cases, traveling companions approached Polish officers for emergency medical attention, but instead got pushed back themselves, and help never arrived.

After police were provided with the photos and exact GPS location of Ahmed’s body, they called back to say they still couldn’t find him. When Kowalczyk turned his car around to personally lead the police to his body, he found out why: The police had ventured into the swamp without waterproof boots or even a GPS to navigate in a forest where there is often no cell connection.

“The police are unequipped,” said Kowalczyk, full of disbelief. Two years on from the crisis, the police still do not have the proper basic equipment nor training to conduct searches for missing and dead migrants in the forest.

The Polish police responded to our email, “The police is not a force with the competence to deal with persons illegally crossing borders.” As a result, at least 8 of 22 bodies of migrants found this year on the Polish side of the border were discovered by volunteers like Piotr and Kowalczyk.

On the Lithuanian side, Sienos Grupė says there are no active searches. “We are afraid there are many bodies in Lithuanian forests and the area between the fence and Belarus, but we are not allowed there,” says Aušrinė, a 26-year-old medicine student and Sienos Grupė volunteer in Lithuania. “Nobody is looking for them.”

“In two weeks, there is nothing there”

In the forest, each search is a race against both time and wild animals. The winter may preserve a body for two months, but in the summer, the time frame is much shorter. A few times, he has come across mere skeletons. Kowalczyk explains, “When there is a smell, the scavengers go immediately. When you’ve got summer and flies, probably in two weeks, it’s done, there’s nothing there.”

In such advanced stages of decomposition, the body is exponentially more difficult to identify. However, DNA can be collected from bone fragments, in case families come searching. If they’re lucky, there are objects found close by: glasses, clothes, or jewelry. In one case, a family portrait found near the body was the key to identification.

However, the Suwałki Prosecutor’s Office in Poland explained to us that the Prosecutor’s Offices keep no central register of data on deceased migrants, such as DNA, personal belongings, or photographs.

“As a wife, I know his eyes”

Four and a half months after Samrin disappeared, Sanooja’s phone rang. It was 5 January, 2023. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka informed her that her husband’s DNA had been matched to a body found in the Lithuanian forest. Interpol had drawn Samrin’s biometric data from the UK.

Samrin’s worn shoes collected from his body at his death Sanooja recognized them immediately when shown police photographs of his belongings Sent by family

She considers it fate that the dots came together this way. When they were 20 years old, Samrin’s father passed away, and Samrin left for London on a student visa. Instead of studying, he washed dishes at McDonald’s and KFC, and stocked shelves at Aldi, Lidl, and Iceland. When his visa expired, he lived a clandestine existence, evading the authorities. At age 26, the Home Office arrested him, took his DNA, and deported him. This infraction turned out to be an unexpected asset for his identification.

“Getting the message that my husband was no more, that was nothing compared to those four and a half months,” said Sanooja. She had begun to fear that she would have to live with “lifelong doubt” around Samrin’s fate. Now she knew that four days after Samrin sent his goodbye message, his body was pulled from a river on the Lithuanian side of the border.

She was asked to identify the corpse. “As a wife, I know his eyes. To see them on a dead body, that was terrible.” In photos of his personal items, she instantly recognized Samrin’s shoes: a muddy pair of blue Converse All-Stars, with the laces looped just the way he always did.

To be able to transport a dead body from Europe to any other part of the world, families must face the financial challenge of costs up to 10,000 euros. But the decision was not only about money for Sanooja. It was about time and dreams.

Samrin’s grave after Sienos Grupé covered expenses for its gravestone. Photo Sienos Grupé.

For one, she believed that he had suffered enough. “As Muslims, we believe that even dead bodies can feel pain,” she says softly. “I felt broken that he was in the mortuary, feeling the cold for four and a half months.”

And perhaps most of all, she recites what Samrin had told her before he left: “If I go, this time I’m not coming back.” In the end, Sanooja relied on her husband’s last will. “His dream was to be in Europe. So, at least his body will rest in Europe.”

“Graves without gravestones”

Samrin’s death was the first border death publicly recognized by the Lithuanian government. Despite being the first, he did not receive any distinctive attention, and his resting place remained an unmarked mound of earth for more than eight months.

On a hot summer day in July, director of Sienos Grupė, Mantautas Šulskus, brings a green watering can and measuring tape to our visit to the Vilnius cemetery where Samrim was buried in February. Green grass is sprouting all over Samrin’s grave. But it is not the only one.

There are three smaller graves lined in a row. Among them, an eleven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a newborn baby rest side by side, their lives cut short in 2021. “These are three minors who died in detention centers in Lithuania,” Mantautas points out somberly.

These cases have not been officially acknowledged by Lithuanian authorities, and none of the graves of the minors bear a name, even though their identities were also known to authorities. This lack of recognition paints a haunting picture, suggesting a second, silent death—a death of identity and acknowledgment.

Bodies are sent to municipal or village governments to bury, and if they do not receive explicit instructions to create a gravestone, they often opt not to. As a result, the nameless graves of migrants are scattered across cemeteries in the region.

Yet Mantautas is here in the scorching heat to measure a gravestone nearby in the Muslim corner of the cemetery. Sanooja saw it during a video call with Sienos Grupė volunteers so that she could pray at her husband’s grave. She asked for a stone with Samrin’s name on it—“just exactly like that one there,” she pointed.

After some months, Sienos Grupė crowdfunded around 1,500 euros to buy and place stones for all four graves. The graves of Samrin and the three children now have names: Yusof Ibrahim Ali, Asma Jawadi, and Fatima Manazarova.

Hidden graves, unknown bodies

The chilling thing, Mantautas explains, is nobody knows how many graves of migrants there might be, except for the Lithuanian government, which buries them quietly, often in remote villages.

Sienos Grupė maintains a list of at least 40 people reported missing on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, information the government does not record. When bodies are found, they strive to connect the dots: Location, gender, age, ethnicity, possessions, birthmarks, anything. But if authorities do not report when a body is found, the chances of locating anybody on this list are nil.

Emiljia Śvobaitė, a lawyer and volunteer from Sienos Grupė, explains that the Lithuanian government will only confirm whether something they already know is correct. “It seems like they are hiding these kinds of stories and information unless somebody exposes it. They would only confirm the deaths after activists have said something about it.”

“No political will”

The Lithuanian Parliament building, known as the Seimas Palace, is an imposing glass-and-concrete building in downtown Vilnius. From an office with a view over the square, Member of Parliament Tomas Tomilinas wryly explains that their government has legalized pushbacks essentially because Europe has not established that it’s illegal.

“I would say Europe has no political will to make pushbacks illegal,” said Tomilinas. “If there were a European law, the European Commission would put a ban on it. It would put a fine on Lithuania. But nobody’s doing that.”

The Polish parliament legalized pushbacks in October 2021, and the Lithuanian parliament followed suit by legalizing pushbacks in April 2023.

Fighting back in court

With the help of Sienos Grupė’s support for legal expenses, Sanooja took the case to court. If the Lithuanian officials wouldn’t speak with her, perhaps they would speak to lawyers. Yet last month, Sanooja’s case was closed for the final time by the Vilnius Regional Prosecutor’s Office after seven appeals. The case never made it to trial.

The Vilnius court claims there is no basis for a criminal investigation. Emiljia Švobaitė, who was on the team representing Sanooja in the case, responds that the pre-trial investigation didn’t investigate the cause of death properly, nor how the acts of the border police might have caused or contributed to the death of the applicant’s husband.

She maintains that the court failed to interrogate key parties, such as the Lithuanian officers who pushed Samrin back to the border, failed to establish key parts of the timeline when Samrin was on the border, did not forensically establish death by drowning, and didn’t search for Samrin’s phone, in which there could have been evidence of violence.

Rytis Satkauskas, law professor, managing partner of ReLex law firm, and the lead attorney on Sanooja’s case, questions whether the Lithuanian courts are trying to hide something greater: he points to a series of inconsistencies in Samrin’s autopsy report.

Autopsies should be conducted immediately to determine the cause of death. However, Samrin’s autopsy report claims that the cause of death cannot be established because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition of up to five months.

As Sanooja’s case has exhausted all legal avenues in Lithuania, it is now eligible for appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

A battle in court for Sanooja could be a long and expensive one. The case in Vilnius courts had cost 600 euros for each of the seven appeals, and after Sanooja ran out of funds after the first case, Sienos Grupė stepped in to shoulder the costs of the appeals.

For the ECHR, it will cost 1500 euros to submit the proposal. Sanooja is exploring the possibility of raising money through NGOs or other means to continue the long quest for truth.

The window of eligibility to appeal will close in February 2024.

“Wherever I go, I have memories”

Day by day, Sanooja’s son grows to look more like Samrin.

She has tried not to cry in front of him. “It makes him upset. I am the only person now for my son, so I should be strong enough to face these things,” says the 32-year-old widow. “But wherever I go, I have memories. And everything my son does reminds me of him.”

Before Samrin’s body was found, she told her son “false stories,” but with his body now interred, she has opened up to her son about her father’s death. He understands it the way a child might.

Meanwhile, Samrin’s death has ruptured the family into those who can accept the reality of his death, and those who cannot. Sanooja’s mother-in-law has ceased contact with her, unable to wrap her head around the fact that her boy is gone. On the day of Samrin’s funeral, she told the family, “That is not my son.”

“What difference does it make, finding the body and burying it?” asks Pauline Boss, Psychology Professor at the University of Minnesota who coined the term “ambiguous loss,” which encompasses the unique stress of not knowing whether someone you love is alive or dead.

Boss states that burying someone is a distinct human need–not just for the dead, but for the living. Yet few families are able to attend the funerals of their loved ones in Europe, for the same reason their loved ones tried to travel to Europe on such a dangerous road in the first place: inability to obtain a visa, or lack of funds.

“I hope one day I will visit, and I will show our son his father’s grave,” Sanooja declares. When Samrin was interred into the snow-covered February earth of Liepynės cemetery in Vilnius on Valentine’s Day 2023, a volunteer present at the burial offered to video call Sanooja through FaceTime.

In the grainy constellation of pixels of the phone screen in her palm, from 8,000 kilometers away, she watched her husband disappear forever into the cold European soil.

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