Spain’s body collector: When migrants die at sea, he takes them home

ALGECIRAS, Spain – No one knew the man’s name when he bathed on the shore. His body floated in the ocean for weeks, and then it sat unidentified in a refrigerator in a Spanish morgue over the summer.

He was one of thousands lost at sea during a record year to migrant drowning in Spain. And he could have been sent to an unmarked grave with the other unclaimed dead if Martin Zamora did not realize that the body has a name, and a life.

It was 27-year-old Achraf Amir, a mechanic from Tangier. He had been missing for weeks when Mr Zamora reached out to his family via WhatsApp. They found the body of their son. He could have brought them to Morocco at a cost.

“Sometimes, I think a few years ahead – in 30, 40, 50 years, I don’t know how many – they will look at us like monsters,” he said. “They will see us all as demons because we let people die like that.”

Mr Zamora, a 61-year-old father of seven, is the owner of Southern Funeral Aid, a morgue in Algeciras. But in this port city where the lights of Morocco can be seen across the Mediterranean Sea, it is much more than that. Mr Zamora is the body collector of those who do not make it a living Spain.

Mr Zamora, who says he has brought back more than 800 bodies in two decades, has built a business model like few others. He wrestles with municipal officials to hand over the bodies so that he can embalm them. He liaises with smugglers to find those who have his remains, and has made several trips to Morocco, his last, in the month before the pandemic, to make contact with them.

For families who left their loved ones missing, Mr. Zamora’s work may offer a kind of closure they had lost all hope for.

But his services come at a hefty price—he charges $3,500 or more to get a body home. No Spanish agency will pay for what he does, and the profit margin of the work is low, he says. And so it leaves him in the gray zone, not uncommon in such border towns, between the desire to do good and the need to make a living.

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

Spain is watching a disastrous procession of migrants drowning at sea.

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

Helena Maleno Garzón, chief of Camindo Fronteras, said the situation in Spain was particularly dangerous because it is the only European country with smuggling routes on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. “These include some of the most dangerous routes being used now,” she said.

This year dozens of boats have capsized near the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off West Africa. In May, others were killed while swimming around a border fence extending into the sea in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa surrounded by Morocco.

Migratory boats are also tempted by the narrowness of the Strait of Gibraltar, which in one section is only nine miles wide, despite strong currents sinking many boats. Some drown only hours after leaving Africa, their bodies later washing ashore on beaches in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain.

Spanish media sometimes publish stories about the latest bodies. Then, when the headlines are low, Mr. Zamora’s work begins.

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

“It can be difficult to recognize someone’s face,” Mr Zamora said. “But a shoe, a jersey, a T-shirt – suddenly a family member will recognize it, because it was once a gift.”

His first clue came in 1999, when he found a note inside the clothes of a dead Moroccan man. At the time, the government was outsourcing the burial of unclaimed remains on a farm with local cemeteries to funeral homes.

Mr Zamora was on call when that body and 15 others were discovered on the beaches. He brought the corpses back to his morgue and discovered a damp note with a phone number in Spain.

He called and a man on the other end of the line claimed to know nothing. But a few days later, Mr. Zamora recalled, the same man called back and admitted that he was the brother-in-law of the young man who had drowned.

“I told him, ‘I’ll make you a deal: I’ll charge you half the price to bring the body home, but you’ll have to help me find the rest of the families,'” Mr. Zamora said.

The man agreed to take her to the area in south-eastern Morocco where his brother-in-law lived. Mr Zamora first took care of the young man’s body, embalmed it and sent it back to Morocco. They then got permission from a local judge to take the clothes of other dead migrants to Morocco.

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

After two weeks they identified the remaining 15 relatives and sent each of the bodies home.

Mr Zamora felt he had a solution in what was seen as a lost cause in Spain. Yet it costs thousands of euros to bring back the dead bodies. And the families he was meeting had little more than that.

“You find family, you find father and mother, they take you to the place where they live and you see it’s a tin shack on the side of a mountain with two goats and a rooster, and they Tell you they want their son back,” he said. “What do you do? Be a businessman or be passionate?”

Mohamed Al Maqaddem, an imam of the mosque in Algeciras, which conducts collections for the families of the dead, said he understands Mr Zamora’s constraints. “In the end, they run a funeral home and it’s a business,” the imam said. “But they do what they can, and we are grateful for that.”

José Manuel Castillo, director of the city’s morgue in Algeciras, said Mr Zamora filled the gap left by the authorities. “Someone has to take care of the paperwork and repatriation of bodies, and if it’s Martin Zamora, that’s great,” he said.

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

“They found him in his work clothes,” Martin Jr. said of the corpse. “Maybe he went straight to the boat from work.”

The boy wandered for a moment, and Mr Zamora almost began to talk to himself. Their son was 15 when they first worked together when a boat carrying 40 people capsized off the coast of Barbet, north of Algeciras, killing 22 people.

He feared his son would have nightmares, but Martin Jr. wanted to work, he said.

“No father wants his son to see these things,” said Mr. Zamora. “But this is the world we live in.”

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

“There were two boys whom we don’t know whether they are alive or dead – surely they are dead,” the voice message began. “The family was looking everywhere and I said we’d ask anyone we know who’s involved in this sort of thing.”

The next message contained a photo of three people in a dinghy carrying a homemade lifeboat, taken moments before leaving Morocco. One was Tangier’s illiterate mechanic Achraf Amir.

Simultaneously, Mr. Zamora contacted the local authorities, whose body was in the morgue. He gives Mr. Zamora pictures of the man’s clothes, and Mr. Zamora – helped by Yousef – locate Mr. Amir’s sister in Tangier and shows her a picture of the clothes. These days, Mr Zamora rarely needs to travel to Morocco, which he used to do, identifying from afar. .

“The paint on his clothes was the paint he worked on his clothes,” sister Soukaina Amir, 28, told Tangier in a telephone interview.

She said that her brother had tried to move to Spain once before, only to be exiled. This time, he didn’t tell anyone but secret hints were left as the family started planning to move into a new home.

“He was always telling us: ‘I won’t be living with you in the new house,'” Ms. Amir recalled.

He left on April 13, he said, with his boat likely to sink the same night. His body floated in the sea for most of April before coming ashore around the end of the month. For the remainder of the spring and part of the summer, it was kept in a morgue, where it perished without being frozen.

And so on a hot summer day, Mr. Zamora carried Mr. Amir’s body into his chariot and, with his son, drove through the pine and sunflower fields. The body was wrapped in a blanket from the Red Cross, which he found. One leg was tagged with the hospital. At the morgue, Mr. Zamora and his son dressed in hazmat suits arrived and began removing the bodies.

Ten pumps from a long needle into Mr. Amir’s shoulder. Another 10 in his chest. After an hour, Mr. Zamora wrapped the body in a shroud, which he covered in a green cloak and sprinkled it with dried flowers, recreating a Muslim rite that an imam had once shown him. . Then he closed the cover of the coffin and he and his son took off their hazmat suits. Both were soaked in sweat.

Yet the work was barely over. In the adjoining room were piles of case files, the bodies of those whose bodies Mr Zamora was trying to find even after he came in contact with his relatives. was an Algerian man, born in 1986. There were two Moroccans who were lost at sea; And a Syrian man who once had a wife and lived in Aleppo.

And a bell was ringing from the other room, and with it, another potential lead.

“Martin, go get my phone,” Mr Zamora said to his son, taking off his gloves.

aida alami Rabat, Morocco, and . contributed reporting from jose bautista from Madrid.

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