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German Protesters Exhume Migrant Graves To Shock Europe Into Action


Scores of Syrian refugees are making a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to escape the conflict in their country. Many are dying along the way. German activists are trying to shock their government into action, so they've taken an extreme measure. They exhumed the bodies of two refugees who perished at sea and were buried in unmarked graves in Italy, and then they took those bodies to Berlin. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

IMAM ABDULLAH HAJJIR: (Speaking Arabic).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Imam Abdullah Hajjir recites Muslim prayers for the dead. His two assistants shovel dirt onto a white coffin in this Lutheran cemetery.

HAJJIR: (Speaking Arabic).

NELSON: German activists say the casket contains a 60-year-old Palestinian from Damascus. They dug up his remains from an unmarked Italian grave and drove them here. They say the man had cancer and paid a smuggler in Libya to take him and 13 family members to Europe last April. But the trip was too strenuous, and he died before the boat reached the Italian coast. The activists, who belong to a group called the Center for Political Beauty, refuse to identify the man to protect his surviving kin. The relatives fear the reburial will embarrass the German government and lead officials to reject their plea for asylum.

YASSER ALMAAMOUN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: One activist, Yasser Almaamoun, says he hopes the funeral will help bring the family closure. But Imam Hajjir says a lot more is needed than emotional healing.

HAJJIR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: "These people are sinking in the Mediterranean," he explains, "but we are sinking in injustice, racism and discrimination. We are responsible." The imam, who has preached in Berlin for three decades, pleaded with German politicians to do more, to do better.

HAJJIR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: That's something the activists are demanding, too. They say European leaders are too focused on keeping migrants out, rather than finding sensible ways to accommodate them. At a news conference, the activists held up photographs and described the horrors they witnessed in Sicily. Scores of bodies plucked from the sea are washed up on shore, wrapped in plastic and stacked in refrigerators and then buried in unmarked graves. The protesters say reinforcing land borders is only making the problem worse because it's sending more migrants to the Mediterranean.


PHILIPP RUCH: (Speaking German).

NELSON: "This is not a tragedy, it's a crime and it needs to stop," says activist Philipp Ruch. Neither German Chancellor Angela Merkel nor her government commented on the protests, which are to resume today when the artists will try to dig mock graves on the chancellery lawn. But Merkel has been vocal about the need for Europe to deal with migrants in a comprehensive way.



NELSON: "Germany is ready to do its part," the chancellor told lawmakers last week, "but other EU states must do their fair share." She wants her counterparts to agree on an EU-wide plan to resettle 40,000 asylum seekers over the next two years. But many European leaders reject the idea of quotas set by Brussels. They argue the solution to the crisis lies in fixing problems in the migrants' home countries. They'll be addressing this emergency again at an EU summit in Brussels next week. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.