The Body Collector of Spain: when migrants die at sea, he brings them home

ALGECIRAS, Spain – No one knew the name of the man when he ran aground on shore. His body had floated in the ocean for weeks, then went...


ALGECIRAS, Spain – No one knew the name of the man when he ran aground on shore. His body had floated in the ocean for weeks, then went undetected much of the summer in a refrigerator in a Spanish morgue.

He was among thousands lost at sea in a record year of migrant drowning in Spain. And he could have been sent with the other unclaimed dead to an anonymous grave if Martín Zamora had not understood that the body had a name and a life.

It was Achraf Ameer, 27, a mechanic from Tangier. He had been missing for weeks when Mr. Zamora joined his family through WhatsApp. He had found their son’s body. He could bring it to them in Morocco, for a price.

“Sometimes I feel like a few years to come – 30, 40, 50 years from now, I don’t know how many – they’ll look at us like monsters,” he said. “They will see us all as monsters because we let people die this way.”

Mr. Zamora, 61, a father of seven, is the owner of Southern Funeral Assistance, a morgue in Algeciras. But in this port city where you can see the lights of Morocco on the other side of the Mediterranean, it has become more than that. Mr. Zamora is the body collector of those who do not make it alive in Spain.

Mr. Zamora, who says he has repatriated more than 800 bodies in two decades, has forged an economic model like few others. He fights with elected municipal officials to hand over the bodies to him so that he can embalm them. He works with smugglers to find relatives of the dead and has made dozens of trips to Africa. His last, in Morocco, came the month before the pandemic.

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

But his services come at a high cost – he charges $ 3,500 or more to bring a body home. No Spanish agency will pay for what it does, and the job’s profit margins are low, he says. And so that leaves him in the gray area, not uncommon in border towns like this, between the desire to do good and the need to make a living.

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

Spain witnesses a devastating procession of migrants drowning at sea.

In 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 group that follows the dead. The International Organization for Migration, a more conservative United Nations agency, has recorded more than 1,300 deaths so far this year.

Helena Maleno Garzón, who heads Caminando Fronteras, said Spain’s situation is particularly perilous as it is the only European country with smuggling routes across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. “These include some of the more dangerous roads that are now in use,” she said.

Dozens of boats have sunk this year near the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off West Africa.

Migrant boats are also tempted by the narrowness of the Strait of Gibraltar, just nine miles wide in one section, despite strong currents that sink many boats. Some migrants drown just hours after leaving Africa, their bodies later washing up on beaches in Andalusia’s southern region of Spain.

The Spanish media sometimes broadcast stories about the last bodies. Then, when the headlines fade, Mr. Zamora’s job begins.

The body is the mystery. Clothes are often the only clues.

“It can be difficult to identify someone’s face,” 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 deceased Moroccan. At the time, the government contracted out the work of burying unclaimed remains in a field next to the local cemetery to funeral homes.

Mr. Zamora was on guard when this body and 15 others were found on the beaches. He brought the corpses back to his mortuary and discovered the wet note with a phone number in Spain.

He called and a man on the other end of the phone pretended he didn’t know anything. But a few days later, Mr Zamora recalls, 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 a deal to you: I’ll charge you half the price to bring the body home, but you have to help me look for the rest of the families,” Zamora said.

The man agreed to guide him to the south-eastern region of Morocco where his brother-in-law had lived. Mr. Zamora first took care of the young man’s body, embalmed it and sent it back to Morocco. Then he obtained permission from a local judge to take the clothes of the other migrants who died in Morocco.

Mr. Zamora and the relative went from village to village, carrying a large rack on which they hung the clothes of the deceased migrants, as well as rings and other personal effects, which they took to the markets where they knew that people would go.

After two weeks, they had identified the remaining 15 family members and repatriated all the bodies.

Mr Zamora realized he had a solution to what had been seen as a lost cause in Spain. However, it costs thousands of euros to repatriate the bodies. And the families he met had a lot less than he did.

“You find the family, you get the father and mother, they take you to where they live and you see it’s a tin hut on the side of a mountain with two goats and a rooster, and they tell you that they want their son back, ”he said. “What are you doing? Being a businessman or being sentimental?

Mohammed El Mkaddem, an imam of the Algeciras mosque who collects collections for the families of the dead, said he understood Mr. Zamora’s constraints. “At the end of the day, they run a funeral home and it’s a business,” the imam said. “But they are doing what they can, and we are grateful to them.”

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

Even in the heat of southern Spain, Mr. Zamora wears a tie and moccasins, looking more like a lawyer than an undertaker. One recent afternoon, he was working on a body with his son, Martín Jr., 17.

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

The boy walked away for a moment, and Mr. Zamora began to speak, almost to himself. Her son was 15 when they first worked together, after a boat carrying 40 people capsized off Barbate, just north of Algeciras, killing 22 people.

He was afraid his son would have nightmares, but Martín Jr. wanted to work, he said.

“No father wants his son to see these things,” Zamora said. “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 Yusef and said he worked in a mosque in the town of La Linea, across the country. the border with the Rock of Gibraltar.

“There were two boys who we don’t know if they’re alive or dead – they must be dead,” the voicemail message began. “The family were looking everywhere and I said we would ask someone we know who is involved in this sort of thing.”

The following post contained a photo of three men in a dinghy with homemade life jackets, taken moments before they left Morocco. One was Achraf Ameer, the illiterate mechanic from Tangier.

With that, Mr. Zamora contacted local authorities, who had a body in the morgue. They gave Mr. Zamora photographs of the man’s clothes, and Mr. Zamora – helped by Yusef – located Mr. Ameer’s sister in Tangier and showed her a photo of the clothes. These days, Mr. Zamora rarely needs to make the trips to Morocco that he used to make, making remote identifications.

“The paint on his clothes was the paint he had on his clothes at work,” sister Soukaina Ameer, 28, said in a telephone interview from Tangier.

She said her brother had tried once to cross to Spain, only to be deported afterwards. This time, he didn’t tell anyone about it, but left cryptic clues when the family began planning to move to a new home.

“He would always tell us, ‘I won’t be living with you in the new house,’” recalls Ms. Ameer.

He left on April 13, she said, her boat probably having sunk that same night. His body floated in the sea for much of April before hitting shore towards the end of the month. For the rest of the spring and part of the summer, he was placed in a mortuary, where he deteriorated because he was not frozen.

So, on a sweltering day, Mr. Zamora loaded Mr. Ameer’s body into his hearse and, with his son, passed pines and sunflower fields. The body was wrapped in blankets from the Red Cross, which had found it. A hospital tag was affixed to one leg. At the morgue, Mr. Zamora and his son arrived wearing hazmat suits and began to embalm.

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

Still, the job hardly seemed finished. In the next room were piles of files, people whose bodies Mr. Zamora was still trying to locate after their relatives contacted him. There was an Algerian, born in 1986. There were two Moroccans who got lost at sea; and a Syrian, who once had a wife and lived in Aleppo.

And there was a ringing from the other room, and with it, another possible lead.

“Martín, go get my phone,” Zamora told his son, removing his gloves.

Aida Alami contributed to reports from Rabat, Morocco, and Jose bautista from Madrid.

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