Burying the Syrian dead in Berlin

Musa Okwonga attends the burial of a Syrian man, lost trying to cross the Mediterranean, organised by Berliners.

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At midday on 19 June, a crowd of journalists, photographers and well-wishers gathered at the Zwölf-Apostel Cemetery in a sedate corner of Berlin. We had been invited by the Centre for Political Beauty, an artist-activist collective, to witness the burial of a 60-year-old Syrian man who died while making the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.

In the graveyard a narrow path opened out into a small clearing, where we were welcomed by Joschka Fleckenstein, one of the group’s leading researchers. Fleckenstein’s face, like that of each his colleagues, was partly obscured by a thick, grimy paste. He looked like a trainee commando off to rummage his way through the jungle. This paste, I was told, symbolised “the burned hopes of Germany and Europe”.

After Fleckenstein’s address we took a short walk to the burial site. The Syrian, who died of health complications on a boat heading for Sicily, was the third to be brought by the centre for burial in Berlin. Its aim, it says, is “to tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion”. The location of each funeral, every one an act of what the collective calls “aggressive humanism”, is announced with only six hours’ notice. And yet there was no haste once the ceremony was under way.

As we waited in the small, quiet clearing, a van drew up beside us, out of which a group of six German pallbearers – all roughly the same age as the deceased – produced a white coffin. They were led to the grave by a greying man of Middle Eastern heritage wearing a white kufi and black-and-gold robe. The imam, Abdallah Hajjir, said a short prayer in Arabic for the deceased, then stood aside as the pallbearers removed the wooden slats from the grave and lowered the Syrian within.

Hajjir then turned to address the crowd. The words he spoke brought some to tears. He did not mean to make a political speech, he said, but rather to honour this man, a symbol of so many thousands of others who have fled from their homeland seeking life but who instead found death. Who was to blame for this state of affairs, he asked. In his view, the question remained open. But we must all do more, he said, whether we were citizens or politicians, worshippers or atheists. We must all do more.

Imam Hajjir scattered a few handfuls of earth on the coffin and stepped back, allowing the crowd to pay its respects. As a man took up a shovel, panting and hacking at the stubborn mound of soil, a few women came forward to lay flowers next to the open grave. Slowly, the onlookers moved away.

Activists from the Centre for Political Beauty moved on to a far more prominent setting two days later as they and thousands of supporters tried to create a burial ground for more migrants in front of the Reichstag, only to be thwarted by German officials.

Prohibited from continuing to dig in front of government buildings, they led a protest named “the March of the Undecided” instead – insisting that neither they, nor the issue they had raised, would go away any time soon.

The German president, Joachim Gauck, has shown some sympathy with the centre’s concerns, if not their methods. A day earlier, addressing a ceremony to commemorate those who had been displaced, he spoke of a “non-negotiable” moral obligation to save migrants from death in the Mediterranean.

“We would lose our self-respect,” said Gauck, “if we left people drifting on waters near our continent to cope for themselves.” And so he and the centre look forward to a time when, unlike the unnamed Syrian, migrants will no longer need to be buried anonymously, so far from home. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article appears in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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