Cuando los migrantes mueren en el mar, Martín Zamora los lleva a casa

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The owner of a funeral home near Gibraltar has created an unusual service for relatives of drowned people trying to reach Europe.

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ALGECIRAS, Spain – When he reached the shore no one knew his name. His body floated in the ocean for weeks, then spent most of the summer in the refrigerator of a Spanish morgue, where he was unidentified.


His case is one of thousands who were lost at sea during a record year of immigrant drowning in Spain. And if Martin Zamora had not discovered that the body had a name, and a life, it could have ended up in an unnamed grave with the rest of the unclaimed dead.

It was 27-year-old Achraf Amir, a mechanic from Tangier. He was missing for weeks when Zamora contacted his family on WhatsApp. He had found the body of his son. And he could take her to Morocco for a fee.

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“There are times I think, I think, some years in history, people of the future — 30, 40, 50 years from now, I don’t know how many — will see us as demons,” she said. “They will see us as demons because they will see how we let people die like this.”

Zamora, 61, a father of seven, is the owner of Southern Funeral Aid, a funeral home in Algeciras. But in this port city that sees the lights of Morocco across the Mediterranean, it is much more than that. Zamora is the corpse collector of those who don’t make it to the living Spain.

Zamora, which assures it has returned more than 800 bodies in two decades, has created a very strange business model. He fights with the municipal officials to get the bodies to her so that he can mutilate them. Contact the smugglers to find out those who have their remains. For families who believed their loved ones were missing, Zamora’s work may offer a way to stop when they have lost all hope.

But his services have a high price: he charges $3,500 or more to bring a body home. No Spanish agency pays for what he does, and the profit margin from the job is low, he says. So he leaves it in the gray zone, nothing unusual in such border towns, between the desire to do well and the need to earn a living.

“My next concern is finding money,” Zamora said. “The family has nothing.”

Spain sees a disastrous procession of migrants drowning at sea.

During the first six months of the year, 2,087 people died or disappeared trying to reach the country’s shores, including 341 women and 91 children, according to Caminando Fronteras, a non-governmental organization that Is. follow-up of deaths. The International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body that keeps a more conservative tally, has recorded more than 1,300 deaths so far this year.

Helena Maleno Garzón, chair of Camindo Fronteras, said the situation in Spain was particularly dangerous because it is the only European country with smuggling routes in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. “Some of them are the most dangerous routes being used now,” he said.

Dozens of ships have been destroyed this year near the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off West Africa. In May, others died swimming around the border fence, which flows into the sea in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa surrounded by Morocco.

Migratory ships are also tempted to cross the difficult section of the Strait of Gibraltar, in a section only 14 kilometers wide, despite strong currents sinking many ships. Some drowned hours after leaving Africa, and their bodies were washed away on the beaches of Andalusia, the southern region of Spain.

Spanish media sometimes publish stories about the most recent corpses. And, when the headlines disappear, Zamora’s work begins.

The body is a mystery. Clothes are usually the only clue.

“They wouldn’t recognize him by his face,” said Zamora. “At a time a shoe, a sweater, a shirt… a relative might recognize it because he gave it to them.”

Her first clue came in 1999, when she found a note inside a dead Moroccan cloth. Subsequently, the government outsourced burial of unclaimed remains to funeral homes on a farm next to the local cemetery.

Zamora was on guard duty when the body and 15 others were found on the beaches. He took the bodies to his morgue and discovered a wet note with a phone number in Spain.

He called and a man on the other end of the line told him he didn’t know anything. But a few days later, Zamora recalls, the same man called her and admitted that he was the brother-in-law of the young man who drowned.

“I told him: ‘Let me make you an offer: I’m going to charge you half to get the body back, but you have to help me find the rest of the family,'” Zamora said.

The man agreed to take her to the south-eastern region of Morocco where his brother-in-law lived. Zamora first took care of the young man’s body, treated him, and sent him to Morocco. He then obtained permission from a local judge to bring the clothes of other dead migrants to Morocco.

Zamora and relatives traveled from city to city carrying a large coat rack, on which they hung with the clothes, rings and other personal belongings of the dead migrants, which they took to markets where they knew people would go.

Within two weeks they had identified the remaining 15 members of the family and sent all the bodies home.

Zamora felt he had a solution for what he considered a lost cause in Spain. However, bringing back the dead bodies costs thousands of euros. And the families he was reunited with had little in common with him.

“Because when you find that family, father and mother pick you up and take you to the place where they live, living in four cans on a lost mountain with two goats and a rooster. And they tell you they love their son,” he said. “What are you doing? Look at the business part or look at the sentimental part?

Mohamed Al Maqadem, an imam at the Algeciras Mosque, who gathered for the families of the deceased, said he understood Zamora’s limitations. “The truth is that they have a funeral home, which is a company,” Imam said. “But they are doing what they can. The truth is, we are grateful”.

José Manuel Castillo, director of the Algeciras Municipal Morgue, said Zamora fills a void left by the authorities. “Someone has to worry about paperwork and repatriation of bodies, and if it’s Martin Zamora, that’s fine,” he said.

Even in the heat of southern Spain, Zamora wears a tie and loafers, looking more like a lawyer than an Undertaker. On a recent afternoon, he was working on a body with his 17-year-old son, Martin.

“They found her with her work clothes on,” Martin Jr. said of the body. “Maybe he went straight to the boat from work.”

The boy turned away for a moment and Zamora almost started talking to himself. Their son was 15 years old when they first worked together, a boat with 40 men capsized off the coast of Barbet, north of Algeciras, killing 22 people.

She said she feared her son would have nightmares, but Martin wanted to keep working, she said.

“No parent wants their child to see these things,” Zamora said. “But this is the world we live in.”

Just before the summer, Zamora says he received a WhatsApp message from a man who identified himself as Yousef and said he works at a mosque in the town of La Linea, across the border from the Rock of Gibraltar.

“Two boys, we don’t know if they are alive, if they are dead, surely they are dead,” the voice message began. “Their families went everywhere, and I said I was going to ask a friend who knows about this.”

The following message contained a picture of three people on a raft wearing homemade life jackets, taken just before leaving Morocco. One of them was Achraf Amir, an illiterate mechanic from Tangier.

Simultaneously, Zamora contacted the local authorities, whose body was in the morgue. He gave Zamora photographs of the man’s clothes, and Zamora – with the help of Yusef – located the emir’s sister in Tangier and showed her a picture of the clothes. Currently, Zamora hardly travels to Morocco anymore as he manages to identify with Spain.

In a telephone interview from Tangier, 28-year-old sister Soukaina Amir said, “The paint on her clothes was the paint on her work clothes.”

He said that his brother had already tried to move to Spain, but was deported. This time she didn’t tell anyone, but made some cryptic comments as the family started making plans to move into a new home.

“He always told us, ‘I’m not going to live with you in the new house,'” Amir recalled.

He left on April 13, he said, and his ship is likely to sink that night. His body floated in the sea for most of April before reaching the shore at the end of the month. For part of the rest of the spring and summer, he was in a morgue, where he deteriorated from not being frozen.

And so, on a hot summer day, Zamora carried the emir’s body upon his body and, accompanied by her son, passed through pine trees and sunflower fields. The body was wrapped in a blanket from the Red Cross, the agency that found it. He had put a hospital tag on one leg. At the funeral home, Zamora and her son arrive wearing protective suits and begin to breathe her.

Ten pumps from a long needle to the rich’s shoulder. Another ten in the chest. After an hour, Zamora wrapped the body in a shroud, which she covered with a green cloak and sprinkled it with dried flowers, recreating a Muslim rite an imam had taught her. He then closed the lid of the coffin and he and his son removed their protective suits. Both were sweating profusely.

However, the work was not over yet. In the next room were piles of case files, the ones Zamora had been trying to find as his relatives had contacted him. Was an Algerian born in 1986. There were two Moroccans who were lost at sea; And an Aramean man who had a wife and lived in Aleppo.

Suddenly, a call came from the other room, and with it, perhaps another clue.

“Martin, give me the phone,” Zamora said to his son, taking off his gloves.

aida alami Rabat, Morocco, and . collaborated on this report from jose bautista from Madrid.

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