VATHY, Greece — On a pine-covered hill above the sparkling blue Aegean lies a boy’s grave, a Teddy bear leaning against the white marble tombstone. His first boat ride was his last — the sea claimed him before his sixth birthday.
The Afghan child with a tuft of spiky hair stares out of a photo on his gravestone, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“He drowned in a shipwreck,” the inscription reads. “It wasn’t the sea, it wasn’t the wind, it is the policies and fear.”
Those migration policies are being called into question in the case of the boy’s 25-year-old father, grieving the loss of his only child. The father has been charged with child endangerment for taking his son on the perilous journey from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Samos. He could face 10 years in prison.
This is believed to be the first time in the European Union that a surviving parent faces prosecution for the death of a child in the pursuit of a better life in Europe.
The father’s hopes were dashed on a November night against the rocks of Samos, a picturesque island that also houses Greece’s most overcrowded refugee camp.
“Without him, I don’t know how to live,” the young man said. “He is the only one I had in my life. All my hopes were him.”
He says he often thinks of killing himself. He no longer mentions the child’s name. The father agreed speak on the condition he be identified only by his initials, N.A., and that his son wouldn’t be named.
It isn’t clear why Greek authorities charged him. Activists suspect it’s a hardening of Greece’s restrictive migration policies or an attempt to divert attention from possible negligence by the coast guard.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi rejected the idea the case heralded a change in policy.
“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” Mitarachi said.
He noted that the lives of asylum-seekers aren’t in danger in Turkey, a country the EU has deemed safe.
“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea obviously put human lives at risk,” he said.
The father said he had no choice. His asylum application in Turkey had been rejected twice, and he feared deportation to Afghanistan, which he fled at 9. He wanted his son to go to school, where, unlike him, the boy could learn to read and write and fulfil his dream of becoming a police officer.
“I didn’t come here for fun,” he said. “I didn’t have another way in my life. I decided to go for the future of my son, for my future, so we can go somewhere to live, and my son can study.”
Greece has found itself on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. From 2014 to 2020, more than 1.2 million people traveled along the eastern Mediterranean migration route, most through Greece, according to U.N. refugee agency figures. More than 2,000 died or went missing.
Last March, as Greek-Turkish relations soured, Turkey announced its borders to the EU were open, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border. Greece accused Turkey of weaponizing migrants’ desperation and temporarily suspended asylum applications.
Aid groups and asylum-seekers have also complained of pushbacks, the illegal deportation of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum. They accuse Greece’s coast guard of picking up new arrivals and towing them in liferafts towards Turkish waters, which Greek authorities deny.
Divorced and raising his son alone, N.A. said he obtained a smuggler’s number from a neighbor after his second asylum rejection in Turkey, where he lived for years.
Their journey to Europe began in the Turkish coastal town of Izmir, where the 24 passengers, all Afghans, gathered at a house. Among them were Ebrahim Haidari, a 29-year-old construction worker, and his wife.
Haidari remembers the little boy as an intelligent, sweet child who easily struck up conversations and joked with the smugglers in fluent Turkish. He was struck by the close relationship between the boy and his young father, who Haidari said was as much a big brother and friend to the child as a father.
On Nov. 7, the group boarded a truck to a wooded part of the Turkish coast, arriving around 10 p.m.
There were four smugglers, Haidari said. The sea wasn’t particularly calm, and the passengers were worried.
The boy didn’t share the adults’ anxieties. He had never been to the sea before, his father said, and was eager to sail.
The boat was an inflatable dinghy. Cheap and dispensable, smugglers overload them with people, and a passenger is made to steer so the smugglers avoid arrest. At least one of the smugglers was armed.
Once they donned life jackets, everyone was forced into the boat, Haidari and the father said. One smuggler drove a short way before making a passenger take over, telling him to head toward a distant light. In a flash, the smuggler dove overboard and swam away.
The father held his son tightly.
As one hour turned into two, then three, the wind whipped the sea into ever-larger waves, and the inexperienced designated captain struggled to control the boat.
“I don’t know what the smugglers thought, leaving us in such a bad situation,” Haidari said.
The dinghy took on water. People screamed. Fuel was running out — the smugglers had provided barely enough to reach Greece.
A mountain loomed from the darkness. Terrified of dying at sea, they turned toward it.
But waves smacked the dinghy against the rocky coastline, and the boat broke in two.
As they tumbled into the inky sea, the child slipped out of his father’s embrace. The waves closed over the man’s head.
He didn’t know how to swim, but eventually his life jacket brought him to the surface. He scanned the waves for his boy, listening for him, shouting.
He sank beneath the waves again. Then, a hand grabbed his and dragged him toward a rock. He doesn’t know who it was but is sure that person saved his life.
People were calling for their brothers, wives, sons. Haidari and his wife struggled in the waves, crying and vomiting seawater.
At one point, N.A. and Haidari said, a boat appeared and switched on a searchlight. The survivors raised their hands and shouted for help, but the boat passed on.
About 15 to 20 minutes later, Haidari said, a second boat appeared. But again the vessel shone its searchlights and moved on.
“Maybe they didn’t see us or didn’t want to help us,” Haidari said.
The father is certain the crew saw the people in the water. He said that when he shouted and waved, the patrol boat trained its searchlight on him.
“They didn’t help,” he said. “They were going around and coming back, going around and coming back.”
The coast guard’s account is different on whether it acted fast enough and whether its patrol boats saw the struggling migrants.
Legal documents show the process of charging the father was initiated by the Samos coast guard, which informed the prosecutor of a man’s arrest for “exposing his minor son to danger during the attempted illegal entry into the country by sea.”
Greece’s Shipping and Island Policy Ministry, under whose jurisdiction the coast guard falls, didn’t grant permission for Samos coast guard officials to speak to The Associated Press. The prosecutor didn’t respond to an interview request.
But a Samos coast guard official outlined authorities’ account of events that night, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coast guard was alerted at around midnight by an English-speaking man who provided coordinates for a possible migrant boat, the official said. The coordinates were on land on Cape Prasso, a mountainous, roughly three-mile peninsula of rocky terrain.
That man was Tommy Olsen, founder of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit that monitors and provides information on arrivals on the Greek islands. Olsen said people who are reluctant to contact Greek authorities for fear of pushbacks contact him.
Olsen said he got a call that night from someone saying a group had arrived on Samos, but several people were missing. Olsen said he immediately informed the Samos coast guard, giving the coordinates.
The coast guard official said they immediately dispatched two coast guard vessels that left the main port of Vathy around 12:20 a.m. The vessels arrived in the area around 1 a.m., the official said, but saw nobody.
Around 6 a.m., one vessel spotted a pregnant woman behind a rock in a treacherous part of the coast, the official said. While rescuing her, which took about an hour and a half, they found the boy’s body. Documents show the vessel carrying the woman and child returned to Vathy around 9:30 a.m.
The woman and child weren’t related. Around the time they were found, at roughly 6:40 a.m. on Nov. 8, a two-person coast guard foot patrol came across a group of 10 people on the hill of Cape Prasso, several hours’ walk away. The group included the father.
“If you have a dead child, you try to figure out who he was with,” the official said. “It’s different when you have relatives there helping and different when you find them alone.”
The suggestion was that the father not being with his son when they were found was a key reason for him being charged.
The indictment accuses him of “leaving your ... child helpless.” It says the father allowed his son to board an unseaworthy boat in bad weather without wearing an appropriate life jacket — though a photo in the case file of the boy’s body shows him in a child’s life jacket.
“These people have to rely on smugglers, and these smugglers decide when and where people take these journeys,” said Nick van der Steenhoven, the Greece and Europe advocacy and policy officer for refugee rights charity Choose Love. The father and son, he said, “became victim of the failure of the European Union to provide safe and legal routes” for asylum-seekers.
The father, his defense lawyer Dimitris Choulis and Olsen paint another picture of that night’s events: one of delays and negligence by the coast guard. Choulis is asking the Samos prosecutor to investigate. The father, he said, is convinced his son would still be alive had the coast guard acted faster.
N.A. said he desperately sought help to find his son. When he dragged himself ashore, he said, he searched and shouted to no avail. Nobody had seen his boy. He wanted to dive back into the waves to look for him but didn’t know how to swim.
After searching for two hours, he decided to try to find help. He persuaded a group of survivors to go with him, and they trekked through the night across tough terrain.
At dawn, they came upon the coast guard foot patrol. Court documents indicate the father conveyed that his son was missing, showing them his possible location on a mobile phone.
The father said they soon realized the location was too far for a search on foot themselves, that reinforcements were needed. The passengers were taken to the island’s refugee camp for identification and coronavirus testing.
His recollection of events from there on is somewhat vague. A woman came to the father with a photo and asked if it was his son. It was.
He was told the boy had been found but had been taken to the hospital in a coma. The missing pregnant woman also had been found alive, he heard.
At some point, the pregnant woman arrived at the camp, and the father’s hopes were buoyed: Perhaps his son had survived, too.
Then, he was taken for questioning. He asked to see his son but was told he had to be interviewed.
After, he still wasn’t allowed to see his child. Eventually, he said, the police called the hospital. They told him his son already was already when he arrived at the hospital.
“Why did they do this to me?” the father said, distraught at the idea he had held out false hope of his son surviving. “They should have told me the truth.”
The father was then jailed.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “A person who loses his loved ones, his son, and then he goes to prison in that condition, alone ... Is it humane to do this thing?”
It took three days and pressure from his lawyer to be allowed to see his son’s body.
The father eventually was released on bail on the condition he not leave the country. Refugee organizations put him up in a hotel.
The little boy’s body lay in the morgue for weeks. His death certificate shows he was buried Nov. 30 in the small cemetery above the village of Iraion, where other victims of migrant shipwrecks lie.
The father has since been granted temporary asylum in Greece. But without his son, he said, he doesn’t much care where, or if, he lives.
“His son was his friend,” Haidari said. “He was everything to him. He was his hope to be alive.”