Posts Tagged ‘John Psaropoulos’

“Some died of fear, some of cold”: refugee massacres on the high seas

Thursday, April 11th, 2019
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At the forefront of inhumanity

John Psaropoulos is an Athens-based journalist (he blogs here). Like his wife, the poet A.E. Stallings, he is on the forefront of the refugee crisis. I wrote about her work with the refugees for the Poetry Foundation here; illustrations by refugee children below are courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.)

Psaropoulos, formerly an international reporter for CNN, has a disturbing essay in the current Sewanee Magazine (paywall alert). “How Refugees Die” opens with the story of Doa Shukrizan, a Syrian fleeing war with her fiancé on a fishing trawler bound for Italy, and then surviving a massacre on the high seas. “During the hour that we spoke, three coastguard officers sat at their desks not doing any work, transfixed by what she said.”

A few excerpts:

“On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa said. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left.”

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

Doa said the boat was submerged in ten minutes. She remembered hearing the screaming of women and children below decks. She survived along with about a hundred people because she had been on deck, but her fiancé did not. Over the next three days and two nights, all but five of those initial survivors would die of exhaustion and dehydration as they treaded water in the open sea. Doa and the other four were spotted by a Greek merchant ship south of Crete; a Greek coast guard helicopter airlifted them to Chania.

Only later, when I reviewed the video recording of our interview, did I realize that Doa wept quietly to herself during the breaks between answers …

***

[Hamad Raad, a Palestinian barber who had survived the same mass murder] explained how the breakdown of social bonds isolated each person and made them more vulnerable to the elements: “In the beginning people were in groups but each day the groups grew thinner. On the third day people lost their senses. Two people came up to me and told me I had taken their life vest and that it belonged to them, and tried to drown me. Many of us were afraid after that.”

An Afghan girl recalls drownings.

Hamad, dangerously disoriented, very nearly drowned himself. “I hallucinated that I had gone to a hotel and was asking for a room and food and drink,” he said. “I imagined that I was arguing with the hotelier, and I took off my life jacket and began to sink . . . the sinking brought me back to my senses.”

“Some people died of stress, others willed it to happen,” said Doa. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of fear, some of cold.”

“Those who had God beside them had strength, and those who didn’t began to end their own lives,” says Hamad.

***

In my article, “Crossing Borders,” for the Poetry Foundation, I include Stalling’s epigram, “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Here’s the story behind the poem:

A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

My friend John Tripoulas, a general surgeon then at the Ikaria hospital, had to pronounce death on the body of a girl, perhaps six or seven years old, found bobbing off the north shore. She had spent so long underwater that her flesh had suffered what doctors call saponification — it had acquired a soap-like consistency. “It was a combination of sorrow and horror to see this young girl in an advance state of decay,” Tripoulas told me, his voice quiet and trembling. “I’ll never forget what she was wearing — pink sweatpants with a Mickey Mouse patch, white boots and a pink overcoat. Her facial features were not visible — they had been lost to the sea.”

The loss of facial features was a common observation. Kalliope Katte, a doctor at the Evdilos Health Centre on Ikaria’s north coast, described the body of an adult woman found washed up. “She was completely naked. It was an awful sight because although she had her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh. It was just a skull.” When I asked about the missing faces, she said, “The bodies have been eaten by fish, they’re not just decomposing.”

John Psaropoulos concludes: “The combined population of the developed world – more than a billion people – could, in theory, absorb all the world’s refugees today – a manageable ratio of one refugee per fifty people.” He concludes, “With electorates divided on both sides of the Atlantic, Europe and the US are likely to continue to follow an incoherent and uncoordinated series of policies, aiming to salvage their self-definition as caring and open societies, while doing everything possible to keep the world’s unfortunates at bay.”