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Missing, in an age of mass displacement

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Lesbos, Greece, 39°22’44.5" N, 26°14’46.9" E, a still from Traces of Exile, a mixed-media installation by Tomas van Houtryve. Inspired by an augmented-reality app that layers a smartphone camera’s view with nearby social-media posts, the artist captured Instagram selfies posted by refugees on their journeys through Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe in 2017 and juxtaposed the images over footage of the locations where the social-media posts were created. © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Lesbos, Greece, 39°22’44.5″ N, 26°14’46.9″ E, a still from Traces of Exile, a mixed-media installation by Tomas van Houtryve. Inspired by an augmented-reality app that layers a smartphone camera’s view with nearby social-media posts, the artist captured Instagram selfies posted by refugees on their journeys through Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe in 2017 and juxtaposed the images over footage of the locations where the social-media posts were created. © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

When I first met Javed, eighteen months later, I almost didn’t recognize him. His profile photo on Facebook, taken shortly before Masood disappeared, showed a tall, formidably muscled man with shoulders like cannonballs. The figure greeting me at the Birmingham airport, however, was skinny and stooped—­conspicuously deflated. Ever since his brother went missing, Javed explained, he had stopped working out, and he’d lost thirty pounds. Javed had begun to vanish in other ways, too, no longer bothering to see friends or attend mosque. Going about the errands of daily life, he said, felt pointless, obscene.

Over black tea and tinned cookies, Javed told me that when Masood had announced his intention to leave for Europe, he had tried to change his brother’s mind. A former soldier, Javed had himself left Afghanistan in 2008, after being threatened by the Taliban. But, when he arrived in the United Kingdom, his request for asylum was denied. In the years since, waiting for another visa application to be considered, he’d led a grim, purgatorial existence—sharing a room with three other undocumented immigrants, toiling away at low-paying “black” jobs in takeout restaurants and car washes—able neither to begin a new life nor return to his old one. Living in the EU, he’d told Masood, simply wasn’t worth the risks attendant in getting there. Better to stay home.

Masood, though, saw no future in Afghanistan. At twenty-two, he had graduated at the top of his university class in Kabul, yet still couldn’t find a decent job. With thousands of civilians still being massacred every year in the war against the Taliban, Masood decided to flee to Germany. “I could probably survive here,” he told friends, “but I wouldn’t be able to live.”

After Masood disappeared, Javed’s first, panicked impulse was to rush to Greece and begin a search. But he knew that the Greek government would refuse to issue a visa to an Afghan citizen who lacked legal residence in Europe. If Javed tried to cross a border illegally, he stood a strong chance of being deported back to Afghanistan. He settled, instead, on making phone calls, hundreds of them. He called police stations, hospitals, consulates, prisons, coast guards—any entity that might know something about Masood’s whereabouts. Most who answered simply hung up; others pled ignorance or refused to provide information over the phone. The Afghan embassy in Turkey and the Red Cross each promised to make inquiries, but months passed without response.

So Javed launched his own investigation. He posted photos of his brother on Facebook pages set up for families of missing migrants, but these mostly attracted opportunists peddling dubious information. (A Syrian man, for example, claimed that Masood was interned in a Cretan sanitorium, suffering from amnesia.) Masood had said that he was making the journey with two classmates. Based on who had shared the last photo Masood posted of himself on Facebook—in Istanbul, smiling in front of the massive Obelisk of Theodosius—Javed was able to deduce the names of his brother’s friends. He contacted their families, and learned that they, too, had vanished. Javed also noticed on Facebook that the three young men had all friended an Afghan man living in Istanbul named Mulla Kaya before going missing. Surmising that this was their smuggler, he messaged people who posted on Mulla Kaya’s page, asking after the man’s whereabouts. All reported that Mulla Kaya had also disappeared at the same time as the others.

The Hotak family was exceptionally close-knit, having survived decades of conflict—the Soviet invasion, a torturous civil war, the barbarities of the Taliban, the NATO occupation. Masood’s disappearance, however, created a rupture without repair. His father spent days locked in his bedroom, his mother cried endlessly, and his eight siblings felt distant from one another in a way they had not before. Every conversation began with “Any news?” Lacking hard information about Masood’s fate, the family took to visiting fortune-­tellers—jadoogar—all of whom offered the same vision: Masood was alive, somewhere, but in trouble.

When a year passed without further news of his brother’s whereabouts, Javed’s friends began to gently suggest that he move on. Countless migrants died on the way to Europe, with many families never learning definitively of their deaths. A few months later, however, Javed received some good news: his application for a UK visa, languishing for years, had finally been approved. To celebrate, his girlfriend baked him a ginger cake. It seemed that, at long last, he would be able to make a home in Britain. But Javed couldn’t conceive of settling down while a chance remained that his brother was still alive. His first official act as a resident of the UK, he told me, was to apply for a permit to visit Greece.

Having only just escaped the machinery of the immigration system, Javed was hesitant to reenter it. Yet, as his parents’ eldest son, he felt responsible for setting things right. Not wishing to get his family’s hopes up, he had told no one about his trip to Greece except his girlfriend, his elder sister, and me, with an invitation to come along.

“Be careful,” his sister told him. “We’ve already lost one brother.”

Athens, Greece, 37°59’01.7" N, 23°43’39.1" E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Athens, Greece, 37°59’01.7″ N, 23°43’39.1″ E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

We are entering an age of mass displacement, bearing witness to the first tentative gestures of what promises to be a titanic redistribution of the world’s citizenry. More than 68 million people are currently exiled from their homes by violence, more than at any other point in recorded history. By 2050, according to a recent study by the World Bank, at least another 140 million people will be forced to relocate because of the effects of climate change. Accelerating inequality, meanwhile, continues to drive inhabitants of poor regions to wealthier ones. While the most recent exodus of refugees from wars in the Middle East into Europe has peaked, such colossal population transfers will soon become routine.

In the midst of this unprecedented wave of dislocation, thousands of migrants disappear every year. These disappearances are a function, largely, of the imperatives of secret travel. Lacking official permission to cross borders, “irregular migrants” are compelled to move covertly, avoiding the gaze of the state. In transit, they enter what the anthropologist Susan Bibler Coutin has called “spaces of nonexistence.” Barred from formal routes, some of them are pushed onto more hazardous paths—traversing deserts on foot or navigating rough seas with inflatable rafts. Others assume false identities, using forged or borrowed documents. In either case, aspects of the migrant’s identity are erased or deformed.

This invisibility cuts both ways. Even as it allows an endangered group to remain undetected, it renders them susceptible to new kinds of abuse. De facto stateless, they lack a government’s protection from exploitation by smugglers and unscrupulous authorities alike. Seeking safe harbor, many instead end up incarcerated, hospitalized, ransomed, stranded, or sold into servitude. In Europe, there is no comprehensive system in place to trace the missing or identify the dead. Already living in the shadows, migrants who go missing become, in the words of Jenny Edkins, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, “double disappeared.”

Taken as a whole, their plight constitutes an immense, mostly hidden catastrophe. The families of these migrants are left to mount searches—alone and with minimal resources—of staggering scope and complexity. They must attempt to defy the entropy of a progressively more disordered world—seeking, against long odds, to sew together what has been ripped apart.

Javed was a decade older than Masood and hadn’t seen his brother in person for years, but, speaking regularly by phone, the two had remained close. His little brother, Javed told me, has—he always spoke of Masood in the present tense—a flamboyant, risk-­taking streak. Back in Afghanistan, their mother forbade her children to own motorbikes, so Masood borrowed a friend’s and went zipping around Kabul in a leather jacket. On holidays, he’d terrify his parents by visiting classmates in distant Taliban-­controlled provinces. While most Afghan teenagers played soccer or cricket, Masood practiced kushti, an ancient martial art where opponents wrestle each other in a dirt pit. Yet, Masood was forgiven his hell-raising because he was also sweet and generous, not to mention uncommonly bright—the first of his siblings to graduate college.

By the time Javed set out for Greece, nearly two years had passed since Masood had disappeared. After such a long silence, it would seem unlikely that his brother was still alive. Many migrants crossing the Aegean, of course, were swallowed by the sea. But many, too, were swallowed up by bureaucracy. It was not unusual, Javed had heard, for migrants traveling without papers to be detained indefinitely, left to languish in prisons or camps with no way to contact their relatives, or held as captives and forced to work in locked sweatshops. Refugee communities in Birmingham abounded with tales of miraculous reunions. Javed believed that his brother was out there somewhere, in need of help. “I would give an eighty-­percent chance that Masood is alive,” he told me.

When Javed arrived in Athens, his first appointment was with the Greek police. He hoped they would take up the search for his brother, though he was apprehensive about interacting with them. In 2008, when Javed had fled from Afghanistan to Greece, he had been held in a detention facility for two weeks, then ordered to exit the country. But when he tried to cross the border into Macedonia, the Greek guards pummeled him with sticks. Later, when he tried to catch a ship to Italy, police again beat him. It was confusing: the Greeks had clearly wanted him to leave, but they also seemed intent on keeping him from going anywhere.

At the police station, to Javed’s surprise, he was directed to a polite, baby-faced detective wearing sweatpants and a skateboarding T-shirt who shook his hand and called him “sir.” Behind the detective’s desk hung a poster with a photo of a frightened woman, whose mouth was clamped shut by a fleshy, distinctly masculine hand; the text read, “one phone call could free her.” The detective listened attentively as Javed explained how Masood had abruptly fallen out of contact after reaching Greece. But when he typed Masood’s name into his computer, his face darkened—there was no record of him. “Usually, with a missing person, we have something to go on,” the detective told Javed, rolling a skinny cigarette. “But this? This is just a name. Your brother could be anywhere.” He shrugged and smiled sadly. “There’s really nothing we can do.”

The detective agreed to file a missing-persons report, which would be sent out to other police departments throughout Greece. Asked for a recent picture, Javed handed him a glossy photo of Masood. It showed a handsome man with an inky pompadour and meticulously trimmed ­goatee, cradling his baby niece. As they parted, the detective suggested that Javed inquire on the Greek islands, where officials would have more information about arriving migrants.

First, though, Javed wanted to check in with the Red Cross. As he made his way through the city’s stucco canyons toward the agency’s Athens branch, he noticed that the city had deteriorated since his visit a decade prior. It was dirtier, every wall blemished many times over with a mess of graffiti. Even the Greeks themselves looked unwell—thinner, more irritable, dressed in cheaper clothes. When the Greek government suffered its financial collapse, the country lost much of its capacity to respond to the migrant crisis. The missing, Javed feared, were not a priority.

The Red Cross office did little to improve his outlook. Located on the third floor of an ugly, dun-colored building with bars on the windows, it had the echoey feel of a company on the verge of bankruptcy. For years the agency has operated an extensive tracing service, which seeks to reunite people displaced by conflict. But EU privacy regulations have prohibited the Red Cross from posting photos of missing migrants on social media, because they are unable to give consent. Instead, it launched a program called Trace the Face, in which family members can post photos of themselves on the Red Cross website, in the hope that their missing relatives will see them and choose to make contact. Javed dismissed the entire operation as hopelessly antiquated: even tribal Afghans, living in the Hindu Kush mountains, have Facebook.

Javed was met by a determinedly upbeat woman who, after reviewing Masood’s file, confirmed that the case was still open. If the Red Cross heard anything, she told Javed, they would inform him.

Javed rubbed his face, annoyed. What, he asked, was the organization actually doing to look for his brother?

“It is our policy to not tell you the specific steps,” the woman said.

Javed frowned. “But it’s been two years.”

“I understand,” the woman said with practiced calm. “The cases of missing persons are very complicated.” If Javed liked, she went on, he could provide a sample of his DNA. The Red Cross maintained a database of DNA from the families of missing migrants, which can be used to identify corpses.

Javed was not yet ready to consider his brother’s death. He asked the woman whether there was a chance his brother had been admitted into a Greek hospital. She shook her head.

“I know this is frustrating,” she said. “But you must be patient.”

Javed felt a swell of anger. Struggling to maintain his composure, he stared out a window into an empty courtyard.

After a minute, the woman leaned in close to him.

“Tell me what you are thinking,” she said quietly.

“You do your searching,” he muttered. “I will do mine.”

In his final messages, Masood reported that his boat had landed on Samos, but Javed was skeptical. Smugglers sometimes lie to passengers about their destination, saying that they’re headed one place and then going to another. A migrant boat leaving Izmir could possibly aim for any one of five islands—Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos—running in a line across from the Turkish coast. Javed decided to start with the northernmost island, Lesbos, where the majority of migrants land. In a photo he had found on Facebook, a group of Afghan men detained in the island’s refugee camp stood behind a tall chicken-wire fence. The picture was blurry, but one of the figures in the background, Javed thought, looked a lot like Masood.

Javed boarded an overnight ferry to Lesbos and slept on the floor, above the thrumming engines. He had bad memories of his own trip to the island, a smuggling operation likely similar to the one Masood had taken. After arriving in Izmir, Javed had been herded at gunpoint onto a decrepit-looking boat with two dozen other men—Iranians, Bengalis, Sri Lankans, Kurds. Scared to put weight on the thin plywood hull, the men arranged themselves in a ring atop the gunwales, balancing skinny bodies with plump ones. After a few hours in the water, the outboard motor stalled, and the raft began to sink. Half the men frantically bailed water with baseball caps while the others paddled with their hands. Eventually, the boat washed up on Lesbos, its passengers soaked and traumatized. Since then, Javed had distrusted smugglers.

As Javed was deboarding in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, he was intercepted by two plainclothes port officers. They checked his travel document, searched his backpack, and allowed a large dog to sniff him thoroughly. He was unsurprised: an Afghan man traveling openly through Europe always invited suspicion. Waved on, Javed walked along the harbor, past rows of pastel-colored Neoclassical buildings, until he reached the town’s main square, which he found occupied by a half-dozen canvas tents. A gaunt Iranian man, sitting cross-legged on a carpet, explained that he was entering the second week of a hunger strike. The conditions at the Lesbos refugee camp, in the town of Moria, the Iranian said, were terrible: a handful of soiled toilets for thousands of migrants, little food, no blankets or shoes, and a constant threat of violence. Asked how to get there, he pointed across the street to a line of people queuing up for a dingy shuttle bus.

We got on and trundled up a hill, passing vast groves of olive trees, until we arrived at a cluster of white metal shipping containers surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Javed was briefly cheered—the camp certainly looked like a place where someone might be held incommunicado. But he was discouraged to spot migrants of countless ethnicities passing in and out of the camp’s wide front gate, apparently free to come and go as they pleased. Many carried cell phones. Slipping past a security guard, Javed walked inside.

Constructed to accommodate two thousand migrants, the camp now held three times that many. Piles of rotting garbage were everywhere. The shipping containers, smelling of sweat and piss, were so crammed with people that Javed couldn’t see the floor. For two hours he walked around, showing people photos of his brother. One man, a twenty-nine-year-old Afghan named Obaid, told Javed that Masood looked familiar, but he couldn’t place him. Obaid, who was from northern Afghanistan, spoke Dari, while Javed spoke Pashto, so they communicated using Google Translate on their phones. Obaid explained that he, too, had fled the Taliban. At one point, he was sent as a combat medic to a location that Google translated as “the butcher’s area.” He had been in Lesbos for forty-three days and was trying—like everyone else in the camp—to get a pass to the Greek mainland. At the height of the crisis, hundreds of migrants had been arriving on Lesbos every day. Most stayed only briefly, just until they were issued documents allowing them to continue on to Athens. Then, in March 2016, the European Union changed its rules: migrants would no longer be allowed farther passage into Europe. Only those whose asylum requests were granted could leave Lesbos, consigning migrants like Obaid to an indefinite limbo while their applications were processed. The camp, Javed realized, was not a prison: the entire island was.

Before leaving Lesbos, Javed visited the police station. When migrants land on a Greek island, their names, photographs, and fingerprints are immediately entered into a database. Because many give fake names—even fake nationalities—an officer agreed to show Javed photos of all the young men who had arrived on Lesbos in early 2016. The faces staring out of the pictures—fresh from the sea, their new life in Europe only hours old—displayed a wide spectrum of affect, from horror to euphoria to bland shock. Javed leaned forward until he was a few inches from the officer’s computer screen, studying the photos one by one. Every few seconds he whispered “no,” and the officer clicked to the next one. Hundreds of photos later, Javed came to the end of the file. No Masood.

Back at the dock, while waiting for a ferry to take him to the next island, Javed was approached by an Arab migrant, who offered him an absurd sum of money for a ticket to Athens. Javed declined, explaining that even with a ticket, the man would still need a visa to board the ferry. Javed showed the man a photo of Masood, but he didn’t recognize him. As the sun began to set, Javed and the Arab watched as three stowaways—two of them teenagers—were dragged from the ship’s dim hold. Surrounded by a scrum of guards, they were handcuffed and made to kneel under floodlights until they were taken away in a police wagon. The Arab explained that they would be held in jail for the night, then released to try again the next day.

The second island, Chios, turned out to be much like Lesbos: more hassling by port security, more photos, more dead ends. The refugee camp, though, was somehow in even worse condition. After checking in with a police officer posted by the gate, Javed was escorted to a small metal shed, which served as an office for the UN’s refugee agency. Inside, scores of migrants with a range of requests and complaints were laying siege to a handful of officials sporting shiny lanyards. The two sides were engaged in a furious shouting match, carried on through a half-dozen languages. The main official, a fat man, perspiring heavily, seemed to be trying to quell the riot with salvos of ­bureaucratese—“No, I cannot help you!” “You will need to return tomorrow!” “We have discussed the problem with the UN and they are fully aware of it!”—but was ignored.

Javed felt tired. He wore three days of stubble and his right heel had swollen from constant walking, giving him a limp. After much wrangling, he eventually got the attention of a UN staffer, who offered him a seat and asked him about his case. But no sooner had Javed begun answering his questions than, seemingly out of nowhere, a half dozen police officers grabbed him, slapped him in handcuffs, and threw him in a police car with two Syrian teenagers pulled from the camp.

Back at the police station, Javed was interrogated by two plainclothes detectives. Why was he in Chios? What was he doing at the camp? What was his father’s name and occupation? The detectives inspected his phone, looking at his photos and his Facebook account. Finally, after six hours, he was released. No explanation was given for his detention.

While in custody, Javed was not, he would tell me later, scared—he had committed no crime—but he was acutely aware of the precariousness of his situation. Just as Masood had disappeared, so, he imagined, could he. More than anything, the entire ordeal—his arrest, the thousands of stranded refugees at the camp—struck him as both stupid and hopeless.

As we walked back to the dock, we passed a sign for an Escape the Room game. I had noticed one on Lesbos too. “Can you escape in time?” the sign asked. The game—players trapped in a small, claustrophobic space, their freedom hinging on their ability to solve a series of esoteric riddles—seemed less like frivolous entertainment than a projection of displaced trauma. In the aftermath of World War II, more than a million Greeks moved abroad, going to Australia, Canada, and the United States. The anguish of migration had become part of Greek identity, insinuated itself into the ethnic consciousness. Now the nation was confronted with a different immigration crisis, to which it was utterly unable to respond.

Moria refugee camp, Lesbos, 39°08’08.2" N, 26°30’14.2" E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Moria refugee camp, Lesbos, 39°08’08.2″ N, 26°30’14.2″ E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Javed had not wanted to leave Afghanistan. His intention in becoming a soldier had been to help make his country habitable, to secure it for future generations. When the Taliban first rose to power in the mid-­Nineties, the Hotak family had moved to Pakistan, where they stayed for eight years. Once, during the exile, a teenage Javed had snuck back to Kabul on an errand. Religious police spotted him and, claiming that his hair was too long, flogged him with an electric cable. Returning home after the American invasion, Javed had enlisted in an elite anti-­narcotics squad. Remnants of the Taliban had transformed into an insurgency, primarily financed by heroin sales. Javed’s unit arrested traffickers, raided drug labs, and set fire to fields of mauve opium poppies. The insurgency, though, continued to grow, and the Taliban soon reappeared in the Hotaks’ village. Rumors spread that Javed, who sometimes translated for the British army, was serving as an informant, and his relatives became targets of violent reprisals. Javed saw that there was no way he could remain in Afghanistan without further risking his family’s safety. With great reluctance, he turned in his uniform and set out for Europe.

Masood had always looked up to his elder brother, and Javed worried that Masood’s decision to emigrate was born of a desire to be like him. In truth, he felt profoundly guilty over Masood’s disappearance.He replayed their last discussions over and over in his mind. If only he had been able to talk his brother out of making the trip, Javed thought, he would never have gone missing. Yet, if he could find Masood and save him, all would be made right.

The first two Greek islands had been discouraging, but Javed arrived on Samos optimistic. Samos, after all, was where Masood had said that his boat had landed. The night before, Javed had dreamed that Masood had shown up at his family’s village in Afghanistan, bringing everyone chocolates.

But at the police station, the officer on duty told Javed bluntly that after two years, there was almost no chance Masood was still alive.

Javed winced. “Yes, there is a chance,” he said. “He could be in jail, where he has no phone.”

“This place does not exist,” the officer said, shaking his head. “In Greece, even in prison, all the murderers make phone calls.”

“My friend,” another officer interjected. “I do not know if you know this, but sometimes? People come from Turkey and—” He dipped his hand downward, indicating a sinking ship.

Masood said he had landed on Samos on January 3. For the rest of that week, according to the coast guard, the Aegean Sea had been so rough that no boats had been able to land on the island. Winds had been blowing at gale-force levels, and no one who fell overboard could have survived the freezing water. On January 4, two rafts filled with refugees had crashed into rocks off the Turkish coast, killing thirty-­four. In the weeks that followed, a handful of unidentified bodies had washed up on the Greek islands—casualties, presumably, of other, unreported shipwrecks. An officer informed Javed that only one unidentified male body, which appeared to be that of a man in his early twenties, had been discovered on Samos, on January 16.

Javed, suddenly ashen, pulled out a photo of Masood.

“Do you think it’s him?” he asked.

I cannot identify him,” the officer said, taken aback. “You must do it.”

Inserting a thumb drive into his computer, the officer summoned an image of the body. Javed, holding his breath, turned to face it. Drowning, he was reminded, was a violent death. The photo showed a naked man in a body bag. His face was coated with sand, his mouth rimmed with dried foam. Streaks of crusted blood trailed, horribly, from his ears, mouth, eyes, and scalp. The photo had been poorly composed, shot from a canted angle that seemed to distort the corpse’s features. For several minutes, Javed looked back and forth between the image on the screen and the one in his hand. Finally, he shook his head. It wasn’t Masood. Wiping tears from his eyes, he left the station.

A little while later, over coffee, I asked Javed how he was doing. “Okay,” he said, smiling barrenly. His devastation, however, was obvious. Throughout our journey, Javed spoke little and would seldom admit to being anything other than okay. Often, he had the deadpan countenance of someone actively suppressing deep pain. Allowing any emotion out would, I imagined, render his investigation impossible.

Over the next few days, Javed pressed on to the last two islands, Leros and Kos. The results were no better. Finding no sign of Masood, he decided to continue on to Turkey, only three miles across the water. When he went to purchase a ticket, however, the travel agent informed him that his documents did not grant him entry to Turkey, which is not a member of the EU. Instead of taking a forty-­five-­minute ferry, Javed would have to fly all the way back to En­gland and apply for a visa at the Turkish embassy in London.

On the plane home, Javed, exhausted, looked out his window. Far below, white clouds cast dark shadows on the Aegean’s great, obliterating plain.

One day on Lesbos, I went looking for a cemetery. For a long time, the bodies of unidentified migrants that washed up on the island’s beaches were routinely buried in unmarked graves. Overwhelmed by the number of unclaimed dead, local authorities soon ran out of money for interment, leaving plots to be dug by volunteers. Simon Robins, a researcher at the University of York who visited Lesbos in 2015, reported that many of the resulting efforts were little more than shallow holes—“bodies . . . lightly covered by earth with only a piece of broken marble on the grave.” Seeking to remedy this insult, a local Egyptian man established a new cemetery, exclusively for migrants, one in which their final resting places were well marked and their corpses prepared with full Islamic rights. Yet, sometime later, this charitable caretaker left the island—driven off, it was rumored, by supporters of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-­fascist group.

Curious what had become of the Egyptian’s cemetery, I took a taxi out to the village of Kato Tritos, where it was said to have been erected. But, after circling the village several times, I could find no sign of anything resembling a burial ground. Eventually, an elderly man riding a moped spotted me and, after a long, confused exchange of poor En­glish and abysmal Greek, agreed to take me to the site. He drove me down a succession of dirt roads splitting fields of wizened myrtles before stopping next to a vast, unremarkable plot of grass. Two strands of a barbed-wire fence, I saw, had been pulled apart, making a small, person-size hole. The man pointed into the middle distance, gestured for me to proceed, then sped away.

Ducking through, I walked for a long time, finding nothing but daisies and milk thistle. I was just beginning to worry that I’d been the victim of a prank when, suddenly, an enormous black bumblebee rose up toward my face. Startled, I stumbled backward and tripped on what I assumed was a rock. It was, of course, a headstone. Looking more closely, I saw that there were headstones everywhere. I was standing on a necropolis, now badly untended and overrun with weeds. The weeds, I noticed with a throb of nausea, grew highest over the grave sites.

Dozens of such potter’s fields have been dug throughout southern Europe. Similar cemeteries exist in North Africa, Yemen, Malaysia, and the borderlands of the United States and Mexico. Death can come to a migrant in many ways—perishing from heatstroke in the Libyan desert, freezing in the mountains of Bulgaria, suffocating in an overstuffed truck in Hungary, or being executed by a smuggler as punishment for moving too slowly. Yet, with few governments taking measures to record these deaths, the invisibility that such migrants endure during life, notes the immigration scholar Robin Reineke, follows them to the grave.

When people die while traveling through legal channels—say, a plane crashes or a yacht sinks—the right of families to know about the disposition of the dead is self-evident. There are sophisticated methods to gather clues as to the dead’s identity. Evidence—clothes, documents—­is preserved, identifying marks—­scars, tattoos, dental records—­noted, witness statements taken, DNA extracted and stored. These techniques, however, are seldom applied to migrant deaths. When authorities do collect postmortem data, there are few routes by which this information can reach families. In Europe, there is no central, publicly accessible database cataloguing missing migrants or the unidentified dead, nor is there significant outreach to potential next of kin. Rather, migrants’ bodies, Robins notes, exist in a “gray zone” of bureaucratic ambiguity, where no one is responsible for their care.

Aware of the danger of their journey, many migrants make strenuous efforts to, in the event of their death, ensure that their bodies will be given names. Most, like Masood, stay in close contact with family or, lacking a phone, leave word along the way with friends. Some migrants, if the seas become rough, inscribe their names on their T-shirts or on the boat’s hull. Others write relatives’ telephone numbers on their life jackets—“If found, please call.” Survivors of the shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa, Italy, in 2013, in which 360 migrants were killed, reported that some passengers, knowing that they would drown, shouted out their names and the names of their villages, hoping that word would be carried ashore.

Idomeni, Greece, 41°07’21.0" N, 22°30’37.7" E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Idomeni, Greece, 41°07’21.0″ N, 22°30’37.7″ E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Back in Birmingham, Javed allowed himself a week of depression over his failure in Greece before snapping once more into action. Masood, he was forced to conclude, had lied to him about reaching Europe. Perhaps his brother, wanting him to stop worrying, had texted about his arrival prematurely. Desperate for leads, Javed revisited a mysterious note he had received from a Hungarian man, one of the few replies to his Facebook posts about Masood. A few months after Masood’s disappearance, the man said, he had been locked up in a jail on the outskirts of Istanbul with one of Masood’s friends, a young man named Tamim. He did not know the jail’s name, but he offered a detailed description. It was a low, flat building near one of Istanbul’s bridges. There was no sign, just a small door. Opposite the building was a tall tree. Inside, the hallways were very dark. The prison cells, painted black, had no beds, just carpets and blankets. Most crucially, the Hungarian said, there were no calls allowed in the prison. Prisoners had no way of letting anyone know they were there.

Though the story was far-fetched, Javed wondered whether Masood might have decided to take his advice and skip the harrowing voyage to Greece in favor of the less dangerous route through Bulgaria. There were reports of Bulgarian authorities detaining Afghan migrants for extended periods of time. Javed decided to visit bothTurkey and Bulgaria. The arrangements took weeks and forced him to exhaust the last of his savings. His girlfriend, worrying about his health—he had returned from Greece skinnier than ever—urged him to postpone the trip, but Javed refused. Back in Afghanistan, his parents were slowly bankrupting themselves on fortune-­tellers, who continued to insist that Masood was alive, though they couldn’t see precisely where. While he’d once dismissed them as haram nonsense, Javed now found their consensus reassuring.

Finally, during the first week of January 2018, Javed landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he was promptly pulled aside by customs officials and extensively questioned. Released after midnight and unable to find a hotel, he spent the hours until dawn wandering through the city’s gray, Communist-­era architecture. The frigid air, choked with smoke—­Sofia is among Europe’s most polluted cities—­stung his lungs, and by morning he was coughing persistently. Sucking on throat lozenges, he took a taxi to the city’s immigration office. In the packed lobby, he waited in a long line next to a poster for an EU program offering cash payments to migrants if they return voluntarily to their countries of origin. Sweden was the most generous, promising migrants up to 3,000 euros and the cost of a plane ticket; Bulgaria, by contrast, offered just a hundred euros as inducement to pursue “a new life” in their countries of origin.

After a long wait, a sullen police officer refused to provide any information, because Javed lacked legal proof that he was Masood’s brother. He got a better reception at the Afghan embassy, where a diplomatic officer served him hot tea with honey and gently explained that the odds that Masood had come to the country were extraordinarily remote. By early 2016, the Bulgarian border had been effectively sealed by aggressive policing and a long razor-wire fence. Self-described Bulgarian migrant hunters, clad in ski masks and carrying machetes, had taken to patrolling the forests of the Strandzha Massif, pushing back anyone who looked like a Muslim. And if by some chance Masood had wound up in a Bulgarian jail or refugee camp, he would have had access to a phone.

Feeling increasingly sick and unable to stomach anything but Red Bull, Javed bought the cheapest ticket available on a train bound for Istanbul, an eleven-­hour overnight trip. But the conductor, a mustachioed Turkish man, saw that Javed was ill and escorted him to a private sleeping cabin, with a Murphy bed that folded into the wall and a little snack of crackers and apricot juice. As the train juddered through the Bulgarian countryside, Javed, fighting a mild fever, lay on his back and went over his plans. Turkey, he understood, would almost certainly be his last chance to find Masood alive.

When Javed arrived in Istanbul, he hailed a taxi and asked the driver if he knew of a jail near a bridge. There was, in fact, a men’s prison on the eastern side of the city, not far from the Bosporus River. When the taxi arrived at the site, Javed’s heart began to pound in his chest. The building seemed to match the Hungarian’s description. It was low and flat, and though there was no big tree, Javed could see a large construction site nearby, and he reasoned that the tree could have been chopped down. Forgetting his illness, he all but ran to the front gate, where he was ushered inside by a sympathetic guard. For a brief moment, as he passed though the door, Javed believed that he was on the verge of finding Masood. This, he thought, was where his brother had been the whole time.

Moments later, an administrator pointed out a pay phone on the wall of the prison’s common room. Later, at the Ministry of Justice, he learned that there were, in fact, no inmates by his brother’s name in any of Turkey’s prisons.

His heart sinking, Javed realized that there was only one place left for him to go: Izmir, the coastal city, from which Masood had planned to depart for Greece. And the only place in Izmir to look, he knew, was the morgue.

When it became clear that Masood had failed to arrive in Greece, I expected Javed to turn his attention to the person who had organized his brother’s trip. Mulla Kaya—the smuggler whom Masood and his friends hired to take them to Greece—was missing, but his associates, whom Javed had found on Facebook, lived in Istanbul. Perhaps they could offer clues about what had gone wrong? Javed, though, seemed uninterested in pursuing this avenue of inquiry. Nothing, he insisted, could be learned from those men. It was better to press on to Izmir.

I disagreed, however, and arranged, with Javed’s permission, to meet one of Mulla Kaya’s contacts at a café on Istanbul’s massive Taksim Square. Although it’s a public space, I had heard enough of Javed’s stories about the depredations visited on migrants by smugglers to feel skittish. Mulla Kaya’s associates might not appreciate someone asking questions about their friend’s highly illegal line of work. I became even more nervous when, at the appointed time, not one but two men approached me. The first of them—tall and cheerful—introduced himself as Khushal; the second—small and stone-faced—said he was Mulla Kaya’s brother, Manaf. Both shook my hand warmly and, drawing up seats, preceded to tell me a story remarkably similar to that of Javed and Masood: two Afghan brothers seeking sanctuary in the EU, only for one to abruptly disappear.

Mulla Kaya—not his real name, but a pseudonym used for his career as a smuggler—had, they explained, lived by a Pashto proverb: “Take risks, otherwise you risk your life.” A few years before, Mulla Kaya and Manaf, both in their early twenties, had sought to travel from Afghanistan to Europe, but could afford to make it only as far as Istanbul. The brothers had taken jobs at a car wash, hoping to earn enough to complete their trip. But after Mulla Kaya got in a fight with the owner over unpaid wages, he decided that the best way to escape the city was to become a “gamer”—a smuggler of people. Partnering with an established smuggler, Mulla Kaya found the work exceedingly lucrative. In a single year, he was able to fill twenty boats with twenty-five migrants each. Earning a commission of $300 per passenger, he was quickly able to send Manaf on to Sweden. His style was daring. Unlike most smugglers, who placed their clients in a raft and pointed them in the right direction, Mulla Kaya kept expenses to a minimum by transporting the passengers himself, saving him the cost of replacing the raft.

At the end of 2015, Mulla Kaya, having amassed a small fortune, announced to his friend Khushal that he was ready to retire. The next game, leaving in the beginning of the New Year, would be his last. When he arrived in Greece, he planned to scuttle the boat and continue on to Sweden. Khushal encouraged him to wait until spring: the winter weather on the Mediterranean was unpredictable. But Mulla Kaya was eager to reunite with Manaf. After that, Khushal said, his phone went dead.

Then, six months later, Khushal and Manaf—who had returned to Istanbul to search for his missing sibling—­received distressing news. On January 8—only a few days after Mulla Kaya’s boat was scheduled to leave—the police had found a dead man, drowned, at a beach in Izmir province. Finding a phone number in the man’s pocket, the police had, after much delay, reached the dead man’s cousin, with whom Khushal was friendly. The police had sent him a picture of the bloated body in a coffin, wearing a life vest. The cousin confirmed the identity of the dead body, a man named Mohammed. Mohammed, he said, had gone missing in early January while on his way to Europe. His smuggler, he recalled, had been named Mulla Kaya.

For Khushal and Manaf, the discovery of the body was evidence enough that Mulla Kaya’s boat had wrecked and that he was no longer alive. To them, the matter seemed settled. They still hoped, though, that his corpse might one day turn up, so that it could be accorded a proper Muslim burial.

“It is always better to find the body,” Khushal told me. “Always.”

Izmir, Turkey, 38°25’32.8" N, 27°07’55.1" E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

Izmir, Turkey, 38°25’32.8″ N, 27°07’55.1″ E, a still from Traces of Exile © Tomas van Houtryve/VII

I once asked Javed whether he thought it would be worse to know for certain that his brother was dead or to have the matter remain unresolved. He thought about this for a long time.

“To learn that Masood was dead?” he said finally. “That’s the worst thing I can think of.”

Javed had, in fact, already heard the story of Mohammed’s body being discovered in Izmir—had learned of it even before departing for Greece. It seemed, given the timing, an undeniable likelihood that Masood and Mohammed had taken the same boat to Greece, and that the boat had sunk. Yet, Javed, it was clear, had pushed this evidence out of his mind. For his entire search, he had refused to seriously entertain the notion of his brother’s death. Now, in Izmir, Javed found himself approaching, with great reluctance, a reckoning he’d dreaded and could no longer postpone.

Yet, when we arrived at the municipal morgue, Javed encountered still another bizarre obstacle. Normally, the morgue attendant explained, the coroner would have records of all the unidentified bodies discovered in the province. But in 2016, after a failed coup, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had initiated a purge of thousands of government officials suspected of being allied with the plotters. Among them was an employee of the coroner’s office whose computer contained information from the first six months of 2016—the period when Masood had gone missing. Both the man and the computer had been seized by authorities.

There was, the attendant added, one more avenue to explore. The gendarmerie—the Turkish army’s law-­enforcement arm—should have records of any bodies found, as well as photos of the corpses. He directed Javed to the station of a town called Menderes, ten miles south. Pale and sweating, Javed found a taxi.

In Menderes, Javed’s request was greeted with perplexity. An officer explained that he had been sent to the wrong place—he would need to go to the town of Özdere, another fifteen miles to the south. Concerned by Javed’s wan appearance, he offered to provide him a ride in a police van. The drivers, two smooth-faced cadets in their early twenties, were in a playful mood and spent the trip blasting Turkish techno music, running the siren at pretty women, and using the loudspeaker to make random announcements to the countryside. Javed stared silently out the back window. As the van reached Özdere, the sun was setting over the beach, which was lined with resort hotels, vacant for the winter. It was two years to the week, Javed realized, since Masood had disappeared.

Inside the gendarmerie station, Javed was met by the commander—an aristocratic-looking man with a powerful jaw—in full military uniform, enthroned behind a big wooden desk. Shivering and short of breath, Javed explained his reason for being there. “Did you find any bodies here?” he asked, barely able to get the words out.

The commander looked confused. Gendarmerie postings rotated frequently, and he and his troops had only arrived in Özdere during the past year. To his knowledge, though, no body had ever been found nearby.

For a second, Javed looked like he might cry. Instead, he took out his phone and pulled up the picture of Mohammed, in his life vest, lying in the coffin. Inspecting it, the commander’s eyebrows rose.

“This,” he murmured, “is a Turkish coffin.”

The commander was quiet. Then he sat upright and, staring into Javed’s eyes, declared with absolute conviction, “I will figure this out.”

For the next two hours, Javed watched as the commander put on a virtuosic display of police work. Copying Mohammed’s photo onto his phone, he made a series of texts and calls, all in Turkish. Javed had no idea what the commander was saying or doing, but he deployed a variety of tones—authoritative, wheedling, chummy, polite—and hastily scribbled notes on a small pad as he went, pausing only to sip from a glass of tea.

Finally, the commander put down his phone and turned to Javed. He had the story.

On the morning of January 8, 2016, a fisherman had been walking on the beach near Özdere when he stumbled across a dead body. It was Mohammed. The man contacted the local gendarme, who gathered up the body and photographed it. For several days, the police searched up and down the coast, looking for signs of a shipwreck, but had found none. No boat and, more significantly, no bodies.

“So there was no chance another body was found?” Javed asked.

The commander shook his head. He had asked every gendarme commander within thirty miles. If Mohammed had been on a boat, his corpse was the only remaining sign it had ever existed.

Javed paused. “There is no place else to look?” he finally asked.

The commander was silent.

And just like that, it was over. Javed’s search had hit its final dead end. He stood up, shook the commander’s hand, and headed off into the night.

As we walked outside, I was hit with a wave of despair. Javed had come all this way, traveling thousands of miles through three countries, had spent untold amounts of money and sweat and anguish . . . for what? To have it confirmed that his brother could not be found? That Masood would, despite everything, remain lost forever? It was hideously unfair.

And yet, Javed was smiling. “I thought for sure we were going to find his body,” he chuckled. “But we didn’t.”

The worst thing Javed could imagine, I realized, had not come to pass. As long as there was no proof of Masood’s death—no photograph, no official report, no corpse—there was still hope. The van drivers, whose mood now nicely aligned with Javed’s, dropped us at a subway station, where we boarded a train for our hotel.

Then, as we were sitting on the train, a strange thing happened. Javed was in the middle of talking to me—explaining how much he appreciated the commander’s efforts—when he was overcome by an uncontrollable fit of coughing and sneezing. All at once, his entire body seemed to explode with illness. By the time we got to the hotel, he was almost too weak to move.

The next morning, I texted Javed to ask how he was doing. He had never once answered this question from me with a response other than “Okay.” Now, though, I received a text reading, simply, “So bad.” When I knocked on his door, he took several minutes to open it. I found him kneeling on the floor, supporting himself on a low end table. He looked—there was no other word—cadaverous. The hotel desk clerk summoned a taxi, and Javed was rushed to the hospital. But, once there, the doctors could find little wrong with him other than a mild fever. They prescribed an antiviral medication and sent him back to the hotel. When Javed returned, he crawled into bed and, for several days he stayed there, drifting in and out of consciousness.

During this delirious interlude, Javed would tell me later, his body had felt like it was on fire. His limbs and chest had been racked with burning pain, and he was
visited by vivid nightmares—of Masood, of his parents, of Afghanistan, of the Taliban. He’d never been sick like this in his life, and it scared him. He wondered if he had done something wrong to bring this on himself. Perhaps this was Allah punishing him for his trust in the fortune-­tellers. Or maybe he had never been meant to visit Turkey at all.

It was hard not to see Javed’s illness as a symptom of his search, the physical expression of an unspoken—or unspeakable—emotional state. Failing to find Masood, or his body, denied him the right to either celebrate or grieve. He would likely remain, for the rest of his life, in the liminal agony to which the families of almost all missing migrants are consigned: knowing that his brother was almost certainly dead, but unable, once and for all, to move on.

A few days later, after recovering, Javed flew back to Birmingham. I wondered whether, given time, he might look at the facts of the case and be able to settle on a narrative of what had happened, as Khushal and Manaf had. It was not the same as a resolution, but it was perhaps a kind of peace.

Yet, when I spoke with him recently, Javed said that he was considering looking for Masood in Syria. Afghan migrants, he had heard, sometimes pretended to be Syrian to improve their odds of being granted asylum. If Masood had tried that, he might have been deported to the wrong country, where he wound up trapped in Syria’s brutal civil war. When the war was over, Javed planned to travel there. In the meantime, he planned to submit DNA to the Red Cross, in the hope that if Masood’s body was somehow discovered, it might be correctly identified. He was also considering proposing to his girlfriend. He wanted to wait, however, to have children, until Masood came home.

And if his brother wasn’t there? I asked. If Syria turned out to be another dead end?

“I keep looking,” Javed said, incredulous. “How could I not?”

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul

 is a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University.

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February 2019

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