The Woman Who Washes the Dead
by Fahrinisa Oswald –
The story of two women – a Palestinian Bedouin and a Syrian refugee – as one prepares the other for burial.
In the large one-room container in the quiet cemetery of Kato Tritos, a small town several kilometres from the capital of Lesbos, Warda Alkenawy prepares for the ritual body washing.
The 35-year-old Palestinian Bedouin from Herat, Israel, is a social worker and accidental washer of the dead who has been on the island since September 2015 – at the height of the mass influx of refugees .
Before her lie the bodies of Ghalia Abdi and her two young children, Zanaf and Walat. They were Kurds from Syria, and, like hundreds of thousands of others, were fleeing for their lives. Only their lives ended somewhere in the Aegean, between Turkey and Greece. Now they are here, on Warda’s wooden washing table.
Warda learned how to wash bodies by necessity.
She came to the island to work as a psychosocial therapist for the traumatised refugees arriving in their thousands every day, focusing in particular on unaccompanied children and those who had lost relatives along the way. Before she set foot on the island, she’d never washed a dead body.
There are two wooden tables inside the container room, one with slats for the water to run through. A long hose hangs from a single faucet, and a heavy white coffin sits pushed up against the wall. The white cloth used for shrouding the bodies is folded inside a small plastic bag at the foot of one table. Soon, Warda will remove the cloth and place it over Ghalia’s body. She will wash the body through the cloth, maintaining Ghalia’s privacy at all times. Shadia Abdi, Ghalia’s younger sister, who had fled to Greece three months before Ghalia, will help her.
As the crisis continued over the autumn and into winter, the number of female refugees making the journey to Europe rose sharply. So did the number of women who died.
Warda says she has never questioned her role, although she has had to find ways to deal with the psychological effects of it.
“I’m disconnecting myself most of the time. I don’t remember a lot of details afterwards,” she says. “In my head, I’m thinking about the families, about the fact that though this journey came to an end – in that they lost a lot of things and people along the way, or they lost their lives – they still need to have dignity.”
As a trained social worker, Warda knows how to deal with trauma – other people’s and her own. “Really, I think I’m protecting myself by disconnecting – not in a bad way. I know what I am doing, and I know that I will do it again and again and again, whatever it takes to give them that respect and dignity,” she explains. Still, even she knows there are limits to just how much a person can handle. “Sometimes, I feel that I didn’t do this, I was not there, it’s not me in these situations.”
Warda came to Lesbos after a friend visited with a volunteer aid organisation and called her to ask if she knew of any social workers who would volunteer for two weeks. It was a Jewish holiday in Israel, so Warda had some time off.
During those first two weeks, Warda says: “I understood that it was my duty to do this, to be there for the families and to give them that peace of mind, to show that there is someone there to give them the dignity and the respect according to Sharia law.”
When the two weeks were up, Warda returned home – but only long enough to arrange her return to Lesbos. “I could not connect myself back to my life [in Israel], so I left,” she explains. That meant withdrawing from a prestigious scholarship, one of only two granted to Arab women in Israel, to study at the Education Leadership School.
Once back on the island, she picked up her role as social worker and body-washer.
With her voice cracking, she says of the women she washes: “The hard thing is that they didn’t need to be there, on this table, in this room, in this graveyard. They need to be alive, in their country, on their land, in their homes, between their loved ones and their relatives.
“This is the hard thing for them, to die alone in a foreign country, in [the middle of] nowhere.”
The caretakers of the dead
Lesbos, a small Greek island in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was once known for its rugged beauty and quaint fishing villages. It is now known for something else. Since January 2015, it has been at the centre of the refugee crisis.
Separated from Turkey by the Mytilini Strait, a body of water stretching less than six nautical miles at its closest point, Lesbos has been a favoured entry point to Europe for people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other places.
For 13 passengers who attempted the crossing on July 13, 2016, six miles was the difference between life and death. Six survivors and four dead bodies were pulled from the water that morning. Three remain missing.
Since October 2015, Theodoros Nousias, the island’s only coroner, has performed autopsies on more than 200 drowned refugees. On the morning of July 13, another four required his attention: one man, one woman and her two young children.
“It’s tragic. Some people survive and live through a war, only to drown in the sea,” says the coroner of 20 years over coffee one morning. “You don’t feel good when you see dead children, dead babies. They haven’t any idea what life is yet.”
For every dead body that appears on his table, Theodoros must perform a full autopsy before handing it over to Moustafa Dawa, the self-appointed body-washer. He washes the men but must find a woman to wash the women.
According to Sharia, the bodies of all Muslims must be washed – first on the right side and then on the left, and from the head towards the feet – prayed over, and shrouded in a white cloth before being buried. And this must be performed by a Muslim.
Moustafa is a 30-year-old Egyptian who has been in Greece since he was in his 20s. He came to Lesbos to study and now works as a translator as well as a body-washer and cemetery caretaker.
But Moustafa does not wash the bodies of women and girls aged over seven. That must be done by a woman.
A few days after she arrived on the island, Warda met Moustafa at the Pikpa camp – a place where the most vulnerable women, children and single parents stay instead of in the larger refugee camps – where she was holding group therapy sessions for children. Two days later, at the funeral of somebody who’d drowned at sea, Moustafa asked Warda if she would help with the shrouding and washing of the women and girls.
She agreed without hesitation, although she now admits that she hadn’t really thought it through. “When someone surprises you with something [like that], your body acts,” she says.
But Warda didn’t know how to wash a body in accordance with Sharia. In fact, she’d never even seen one before.
Within a few minutes, that had changed as Moustafa asked her to help cover the body of a dead woman.
“It was a terrifying moment to touch the body. It was so cold and so hard,” she recalls. “It’s like touching death itself.” Warda still remembers the smell. “I crashed in that moment, crying and crying at the cemetery and then later at home as well, for two days.”
The woman whose body she was there to cover had been kept, along with dozens of others, stacked one on top of the other, inside a refrigerated container at the back of the coroner’s office for a month. After seeing this, and the way the bodies were piled into the back of a car to be driven to the cemetery for the washing and burial, Warda felt a renewed sense of responsibility. “I know how the dead body needs to be treated, and this was not the way,” she reflects.
Nearly one million refugees have reached the shores of Europe – mainly in Greece and Italy – since January 2015, and nearly 4,000 have perished in the sea . As the summer turned to autumn, the number of arrivals on Lesbos increased dramatically, as refugees rushed to beat the impending winter weather. The number of autopsies and burials also grew.
In November 2015, the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos , announced that the island had run out of space to bury the dead. Indeed, St Panteleimon – the only cemetery in Mytilini – had reached maximum capacity. But the dead did not stop washing up on the shore.
The morgue also ran out of space. With the bodies piling up, a refrigerated container was brought in to store the dead.
Over the weeks and months that followed, Warda and Moustafa established a strict procedure regarding how the bodies would be treated. “At first, they were not buried according to Islamic tradition, the ones laid to rest in St Panteleimon,” Warda says, explaining that they were simply shrouded in a white cloth without a ritual washing.
In November 2015, when the municipality of Lesbos set aside a plot of land in a field behind barbed-wire fences and rows of olive trees in the town of Kato Tritos, Warda learned how to properly wash a body. With little other than the sound of birds and donkeys to accompany her work, Warda washed and buried dozens of women. On mound after mound, little yellow weeds dot the graves. It is here that the bodies of the most recent victims – Ghalia, Zanaf and Walat Abdi – will be laid to rest, bringing the total number of bodies in Kato Tritos to 90.
A final resting place
As men dig the graves and clear the weeds, Warda washes Ghalia’s body.
In the early morning hours of July 13, Ghalia and her husband, Fawz, had boarded a small plastic boat heading to Lesbos. Each carried a small bag and one of their two children. Now Ghalia and her two children are on Warda’s table. Fawz’s body is still missing.
For Shadia, to see her sister lying lifeless on the table was like living in a nightmare.
Later that day, Warda reflects: “I knew it was difficult for her, and she kept closing her eyes. When I’m washing a woman, I’m covering her intimate areas. But this time I kept the head covered as well, because I knew that it was hard for her.”
While Warda and Shadia finished washing the body, Ghalia’s two other sisters and their brother’s baby sat in the shade of an olive tree. The sisters spoke little, but when they did it was in tearful whispers.
Quietly, Warda opened the door to the washing room, looked at Moustafa and signalled that she had finished. Closing the door behind her, she walked out among the graves, reading each plaque as she passed. Pausing for a moment, she offered a prayer to all those she had washed and helped to bury. Occasionally, she pulled at some weeds.
The white marble plaques atop these mounds are much the same as those in the cemetery of St Panteleimon – the patron saint of the sick and destitute – only here there are far more that read “unknown”. These are the refugees who have not been identified, either because they were traveling alone, were part of an entire family lost at sea, or because their bodies were too mutilated or decomposed to be identified.
Their plaques display the date they washed up on shore, a symbol indicating whether they are male or female, and their 3-digit DNA number. Of the 90 bodies buried here, only 28 have been identified.
As the three bodies are taken from the washing room to the edge of the grave, men begin reciting the Quran – their voices growing louder as they lower the bodies into the ground.
Ghalia and her daughter will be buried side by side, while Walat will be buried in the grave beside theirs. If Fawz’s body is found, he will be placed in the grave with his son.
For Warda, this burial marks the end of her journey as a body-washer. Her flight to Israel will leave later tonight. But she knows she will be back.
“It changed my life, really. Today, I feel that my important mission is to be there for the people who most need it – for the people who are struggling to continue believing in life. It is what helps me to continue doing this,” she says.
Epilogue: An accident at sea
On July 13, as the sun rose over the quiet island of Lesbos, Rami Alqdman stopped swimming and looked at the three-year-old girl in his arms and realised she was dead. Until then, it had been too dark to tell if she had survived the boat-wreck five hours before.
Zanaf Abdi had been travelling with her parents, Ghalia and Fawz Abdi, and her baby brother, Walat, along with nine other passengers. Together, they had boarded a plastic boat a little after midnight on the shores of Turkey, somewhere between Ayvalik and Bademli, they couldn’t quite say, and set out for Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. Their smuggler had told them that it would be a short 20-minute boat ride and that life jackets wouldn’t be necessary. He wasn’t wearing one either.
Twenty minutes passed, and then an hour. Still, Greece was barely visible beyond the blinking lights in the distance. As the boat entered Greek waters, the wind picked up and waves started to toss it violently. The passengers grew nervous and began questioning the driver. He assured them that there was nothing to be worried about. Rami looked around and took note of where the two children were sitting. Then a wave came crashing over the side, half filling the boat with water. Before anyone could recover, a second wave hit and flipped the boat upside down, taking all 13 passengers with it.
Two days after the accident, Rami and I sat on a wooden bench under the shade of an olive tree. We were at Kara Tepe refugee camp in Mytilini, where the six survivors of the wreck had been taken. As he sat there, clasping his hands together in his lap, he slowly rocked back and forth as he recalled that night.
“All of us became submerged under the boat, but because some of us could swim, we escaped from the sides,” he explained. Hearing Ghalia’s screams, Rami began looking for the two children who had been sitting across from him. “Everyone was screaming then. Even the driver who they haven’t found until now was screaming, in Turkish, that the kids were still down.”
Going back under, Rami searched in the dark for bodies. “I tried to grab one of them and kept it with me. At the same time, something like a plastic bag hit me. I didn’t know what it was but I caught it in my other hand.” It turned out to be a life jacket. Rami didn’t know where the life jacket had come from because he hadn’t seen any aboard the boat. “I held the life jacket in my right arm and the little girl in my left. I still have marks on each arm,” he said, showing them.
Rami was quickly swept away by the waves, Zanaf in one arm and the life jacket in the other.
Eight hours later, still holding Zanaf’s lifeless body, he was rescued by the Greek Coastguard and Frontex in a joint search-and-rescue mission. Soon after that, the bodies of Ghalia and Walat were also pulled from the water.
Mother, son and daughter then began their final journey from the coroner’s table, to Warda’s body-washing table, and then to their graves in Kato Tritos, only a few kilometres from the beach in Mytilini where they had hoped to come safely ashore earlier that morning.
Reprinted with permission from Al Jazeera