Dead Bodies Remind Germany of its Responsibility

Photo: Zentrum für Politische Schönheit.

For most, the sight of exhumed bodies being laid to rest is an uncomfortable one. Some of the first victims of Europe’s refusal to deal with attempted border crossings are coming to Berlin today to be buried. Das Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty) are bringing the bodies of victims to Berlin to be buried at their family’s direction, away from the mass graves lying between borders. The controversial act might seem cynical, however, it is hoped that by giving victims a proper funeral the victims and their families can find some peace at last. The team behind the project hope to lay the bodies at the feet of Germany’s decision markers, as a reminder of their consequences of their inaction. The plans for a memorial to be erected outside of the federal Chancellery and would be the first of its kind: A Memorial to the Unnamed Immigrant.

How did we get here? The answer is a long one, which traces the European Union’s refusal to accept the scale of the problem of boat crossings on the southern European border. It is estimated that this year alone, the death toll on this crossing has exceeded 1,500 and there are no signs that the humanitarian crisis is abating. Last year the Italian naval operation, Mare Nostrum, ceased its efforts without meaningful replacement (Triton, led by border security force Frontex does not include search and rescue operations for the area). Despite this, and despite evidence that the dangers of the crossing are well known among those boarding the ship, in the first 17 days of April this year alone, 11,000 refugees were rescued at sea. As countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa have descended into political chaos, the response in Europe to refugees fleeing the turmoil has been woefully inadequate. The number of people drowning on this crossing was 17x greater between January and April 2015 than it was the year before. Some observers have suggested that European leaders, particularly those away from the realities of this horror, have chosen to remain ignorant. Today’s events mean that Germany’s political elite can do that no longer.

Today in Berlin a mother and, symbolically, her missing two year old child, both drowned on their attempted crossing into Europe, were laid to rest in an Islamic funeral at Friedhof Berlin-Gatow, Maximilian-Kolbe-Str. 6. Formerly only known as Unknown No. 2, the Zentrum researched her identity and contacted her family to arrange the funeral. The organisers have had to exercise caution in announcing the move, for fear that Berlin authorities will intervene. Further burials will be held during the week, but announced only six hours in advance. This will be followed on the 21st with the March of the Determined (Der Marsch der Entschlossenen), will see supporters and excavators head to the planned site by the Chancellery to break ground on a proposed memorial, which is unlikely to be realised. It is to form a grand arch proclaiming a home for the refugees that died trying to reach Europe and affirming that: “One day, we will be the refugees” (“Die Flüchtenden werden einst wir sein”).

The first sign of the indignities inflicted on the bodies of the refugees came in 2010 when a mass grave of 200 bodies was found in Sidiro in Greece. Men, women and children than had died attempting to cross the Greek-Turkish border (at the time, the border guards were heavily supported by German forces). The bodies were buried in the middle of nowhere, apparently without ceremony and without efforts to identify those who had died at sea. This year, the team traced the bodies of 17 refugees found drowned at sea on 30th March. Das Zentrum für Potlitsche Schönheit reports that although the bodies were initially placed in coffins for the sake of the media, the bodies were afterwards thrown into rubbish bags and stacked on top of each other in a hospital in Augusta. The images from the scene are graphic. Around the same time, the team discovered a warehouse in Sicily packed with 13 bodies and including the bodies of two children, stuck for 8 months for ‘bureaucratic problems’. The bodies of the victims have been consistently mistreated, disrespected and defiled by the authorities charged with their care.

However, the planned exhumations and reburial of these bodies, albeit with the consent of family members, is not without its problems. Termed ‘performance art’, the bodies of the dead are literally being used to make a political point. It sits uncomfortably with the discussion of treating the victims’ bodies respectfully. At the same time, if the humanitarian crisis in the water is being ignored, refused and rejected by those with the power to change things, bringing them the results of their inaction is a powerful message indeed. Das Zentrum für Politische Schönheit researched the identities of some of those who otherwise only appeared as numbers on the official death count of the European border. Giving the dead their dignity back and granting them a proper funeral might give their families some peace. Doing so in the middle of Berlin, thousands of kilometres away from where they came from, might provoke uncomfortable feelings in us. Maybe, however, this feeling is exactly what we need to acknowledge what is happening on the European border: the ongoing deaths of those who seek asylum and a future in Europe which we can no longer ignore.

By Niklas Kossow and Sarah Coughlan

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