Sarah Souli | November 2022 | 13 minutes (3,781 words)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 133, “A Matter of Honor.” The story was completed with generous support from the Incubator for Media Education and Development, a nonprofit journalistic organization founded in 2018 with an exclusive donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
“Just by being there, the border is an invitation.
Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare.”
Life in a diaspora can have the dull ache of a phantom limb. In the Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, in August 2021, the pain was acute. More than 2,000 miles away, the Taliban was starting to take back control of Afghanistan; within days the country would fall to an old regime made new. The events had plunged Zeytinburnu, an enclave of tens of thousands of Afghans displaced from their home country by war, poverty, and other ills, into a state of collective fear and mourning.
The context seemed to render my investigation, now dragging into its third year, futile. What did three dead women matter when a whole nation was having its heart ripped out?
The heat of late summer shimmered off the pavement as I spent long, liquid days moving from one person to another, displaying my phone screen and asking the same question: Do you know these women? I approached customers in call centers that promised good rates back home, patrons in restaurants where the smell of mutton biryani filled the air, elderly men sipping tea on wooden benches, and mothers watching children at a construction site that had been turned into a makeshift playground. I lost count of how many people I asked. Everyone gave the same answer: No.
On what was supposed to be my last afternoon in Zeytinburnu, I stood outside a café window watching a young Afghan man inside churn cardamom shiryakh (ice cream) in a large copper pot. The customers behind him drank fruit juices and devoured frozen treats amid kitsch decor: blue plastic flowers, a glossy relief of the Swiss Alps. The scene felt at odds with the urgent historical moment; in Kabul, as the American military withdrew, the Taliban was shooting people dead in the streets. Still, perhaps my professional defeat, my failure to find answers, would go down easier with sugar.
* Names have been changed for individuals’ safety.
The door to the café jingled as I walked inside with Tabsheer,* an Afghan journalist and translator who was helping me report. We sat at a plastic table, where a waiter placed a dish of ice cream swirled to a perfect point and dusted with pistachio. After we ate, Tabsheer suggested, “Let’s just ask one more person. We’re here. We might as well.”
We settled on a middle-aged man who, in a pressed shirt and slacks, would have looked the consummate professional if not for the comically large banana smoothie he was drinking. We walked over and introduced ourselves using the same tired script. I took out my phone and pulled up a photo of a woman, her glossy red lips pursed in a coquettish expression that over the course of my reporting had come to signify disappointment—at men, at law enforcement, at me, the journalist trying to unearth her story.
The man looked at the image and put down his smoothie. He furrowed his brow and leaned in slightly. His lips parted and he hesitated a moment, which prepared me for familiar disappointment. Then he spoke.
“Yes,” he said. He cocked his head to the side. “Yes, I know this woman.”
“Are you sure?”I asked, incredulous at the turn the day had taken.
I pulled up another photo—a teenager with dark eyes, her straight hair tucked behind one ear. “What about this girl, do you recognize her?” I asked, holding my breath.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he repeated.
I brought up another photo, this time of a young man looking over his shoulder, his mouth firmly set. “I often saw them together around here, but this was many years ago,” the man said. He looked at me quizzically. “What do you want with these people?”
I chose my next words carefully. Few things spook people like the mention of murder. “I’m looking for them,” I replied. “Something bad happened to them in Greece.”
The man held my gaze for a moment and took a sip of his smoothie. Whatever he was weighing, when he set his glass down he seemed to have made up his mind. “I know all these people, and I know their story,” he said. “I will tell you everything.”
THREE YEARS EARLIER
On the morning of October 10, 2018, a Greek farmer named Nikos Papachatzidis left his house to tend his fields. His land abutting the Evros River had long been a source of pride. This slice of the world, on the very eastern edge of Europe, is fertile, a place where sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and sunflowers grow in abundance.
With his snow-white hair blowing in the breeze, Papachatzidis, then in his early seventies, hopped onto his tractor and began tilling the soil. As he drove, he noticed something on the ground: a human hand, bound with a length of rope. He stopped the tractor and climbed down to find a dead woman, her face more or less intact, with a wide wound on her neck. Papachatzidis called the police.
Papachatzidis is not a man easily ruffled. When the police arrived, they cordoned off the area around the body, and Papachatzidis went back to work on another part of his land. He stayed out until sundown, at which point he returned home, exchanged his muddy boots for house slippers, and told his wife about the dead woman. At first she was angry—why had he waited all day to tell her? Then she grew so scared that a killer might be on the loose that she spent a sleepless night praying.
The next day, the couple received a phone call from the police. The bodies of two other women had been found on Papachatzidis’s land. It was likely that all three were migrants or asylum seekers. They had been murdered.
Bodies turn up along the Evros River with morbid regularity. The thin, shallow waterway divides Greece and Turkey for some 120 miles—the countries’ only shared land border—before dumping into the Aegean Sea. The area around Papachatzidis’s farm is a popular gateway for people desperate to enter Europe in search of freedom, safety, and dignity. But while traversing the river is less treacherous than a boat passage across the Mediterranean, it is by no means safe. Between 2018 and 2022, more than 200 migrants and refugees died trying to cross the Evros. Hypothermia and drowning are the most common causes of death. The strong current is challenging even for capable swimmers, and natural debris such as tree branches can snag on clothing and drag people—often children—to the river’s muddy bed. Across the Evros, other dangers await. Smugglers load people into vans bound for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, with drivers who are often scared and inexperienced, resulting in horrific car crashes along the highway.
Murder, though, is a different matter. It is all but unheard of in Evros, the Greek region that takes its name from the river. For locals, the crime on Papachatzidis’s land was the most brutal act in recent memory.
Word spread fast, fueling rumors. This was the work of Islamic State operatives, some people said. No, the Turks did it. No, only a Greek soldier could be responsible. Greece, after all, had militarized the border in recent years, in an effort to keep migrants out of the European Union. With support from Brussels, the Evros River was now lined with fences and patrolled by men with guns. Some police officers who intercepted Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, and other migrants after they crossed the river allegedly violated international human rights law by sending them right back to Turkey, a practice known as pushback. (Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Greece denies that it engages in pushback.) Over the coming years, several people would be shot dead trying to enter Evros. In March 2020, as border police and the military fired upon migrants, reportedly killing two, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for being “a European shield.”
A glaring indignity, among many others, is that Europe is not always aware of who dies on its doorstep. Identifying bodies found in Evros is the job of one man: Pavlos Pavlidis, a doctor and forensic scientist. When a migrant dies, the body is taken to Pavlidis’s morgue at University General Hospital in the seaside city of Alexandroupoli.
Pavlidis is tall and gaunt, with the stooped demeanor of a man used to doling out bad news. His job often feels Sisyphean: endless and hopeless. Unlike the sea, the Evros River has no salt to preserve bodies, and faces quickly disintegrate beyond recognition. Most identifying documents are lost or heavily damaged during crossings. Pavlidis takes DNA from the bodies and notes potentially identifying clues—tattoos and circumcisions, for instance—as well as material possessions. He sometimes works with the International Red Cross and various embassies to try and contact the families of the deceased. In most cases, the bodies he inspects are never identified.
When Pavlidis arrived at Papachatzidis’s farm, a grisly scene awaited him. Two of the women were found on their knees, facedown in the soil. Roughly 330 feet away, the third woman, who looked older than the others, lay sprawled on the ground, as though she had tried to run away and been knocked off her feet. All three had their hands bound, and their throats were cut. Their shoes were laced and their pants were buttoned.
Pavlidis is not an emotional man. In the more than two decades he has spent toiling in a hospital basement, he has learned not to think about what the dead were like when they were alive, or what they experienced in their final moments. A morgue is no place to contemplate the immense cruelty of the world if one wants to stay sane. “You get feelings,” Pavlidis said with a firm shake of his head. “I don’t want that.”
Pavlidis oversaw the transfer of the women’s bodies to Alexandroupoli, where they were placed on metal gurneys. The sharp chemical smell of the hospital masked the musk of decay. Decomposition had already set in; it appeared that several days passed before Papachatzidis discovered the bodies. Pavlidis noted that the women were dressed like “Europeans,” in tight denim and without headscarves. They had no identifying documents. Pavlidis found no internal bruising or other signs of trauma. No drugs or alcohol were in the women’s systems, and there was no evidence of sexual assault. The younger women were still, at least medically speaking, virgins; the older woman was not.
Pavlidis took DNA samples from skin, clothes, and hair. He scraped underneath the women’s fingernails, which were manicured and painted pearly pink. Genetic testing soon illuminated one piece of the story: The women were related. The younger two were sisters, and they had been killed a short distance from their mother.
The cause of death in each case was hemorrhagic shock brought on by severe blood loss. The women’s jugular veins had been cut, likely by someone right-handed. In Pavlidis’s experience, wounds of this nature were often sloppy and jagged; slicing someone’s throat is difficult, especially if they’re screaming or moving around. But the wounds on the women were precise. “It was like a butcher cut,” Pavlidis told me, sitting in his office. A cigarette smoldered in a glass ashtray on his desk, and an old PC hummed behind it. “I’ve said from the beginning, this guy is a professional.”
Two knives were found at the crime scene: one nine and a half inches long, with a serrated edge, and another, slightly shorter, with a black plastic handle. Both had been wiped clean. Police found a few other items near the bodies, including a water bottle, a bag of almonds, a tube of lipstick, and a soda can.
The most important piece of evidence was also one of the luckiest finds: a Samsung mobile phone tucked in the mother’s breast pocket. The local police didn’t have the technology to extract metadata from it, nor the experience to handle what was likely to become an international criminal investigation. The women had been killed in Greece after leaving Turkey, and it was all but certain they’d begun life in a third country. To find out who the women were and who had killed them, someone with resources and connections would have to run the investigation.
Zacharoula Tsirigoti is short and compact, with small fingers that seem constantly to be rolling cigarettes with the assistance of a little machine she keeps in her purse and reddish hair that, when we met, was cropped close to her scalp. But while outward appearances indicate a woman built for efficiency, during our first interview Tsirigoti called herself “a romantic.” I watched her tear up twice while talking about her work.
From the age of 13, Tsirigoti wanted to be a police officer. “Not like the riot police that just beat people up,” she clarified, wagging a finger in the air. She wanted to give back to her community; she was attracted to the ethos of service and protection. After graduating from university, Tsirigoti started off as a constable, then spent 22 years working on relations between the Hellenic police and foreign law enforcement. She eventually became head of the Aliens and Border Protection Branch, and in 2016 was promoted to lieutenant general in the Hellenic police in Athens, making her the highest-ranking female officer in Greece.
None of this was without challenges. Greece is the lowest-ranked EU country in terms of gender equality; the Hellenic police is not a bastion of feminism. “The society in Greece is not ready to accept women doing jobs that men used to do,” Tsirigoti said. She sprinkled tobacco onto a rolling paper and looked up at me with a sly smile. “They gave me this branch because they thought I couldn’t manage the situation, but they were wrong,” she said. “A woman is more diplomatic than a man.”
Diplomacy was one characteristic needed to helm the investigation into the triple murder in Evros. Another was patience. Tsirigoti knew it might take months, if not years, to make progress in the case. The required paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvering, already Kafkaesque in Greece, would become even more dizzyingly complex when other nations entered the mix. With her commitment to her work and her Rolodex of international contacts, plus her deep understanding of migration patterns between Greece and Turkey from her time in border protection, Tsirigoti was ideally suited to the job.
One factor working against the investigation was general disinterest in the victims. In November 2018, a month after the murders, Eleni Topaloudi, a 21-year-old Greek woman, was attacked, gang-raped, and killed on the island of Rhodes. The case mobilized the nation, and police quickly arrested the perpetrators. The following year, when Suzanne Eaton, a sixty-year-old American woman, was murdered on Crete, the crime made headlines around the world, and her killer was brought to justice in two weeks. By contrast, the three migrant women killed in Evros barely made the news.
Tsirigoti didn’t just keep law enforcement’s attention on the case—she was the attention. “For me as a woman, it was very sad to see a mother with her two daughters killed like this,” she said. “To cross the border to another country there is a cause. They are human beings, not a number. I wanted to prove to the world, to the EU, that the Greek police investigate and care about everything. It was a matter of honor.”
The first step in the investigation was to contact Interpol, the international organization that facilitates cooperation among law enforcement in 195 countries. Greek police sent a “black notice” to the agency, an official request for information pertaining to unidentified bodies. They shared fingerprints taken from the three bodies—if the women had been registered as asylum seekers in, say, Turkey, there was a chance Interpol would be able to identify them. “We expected to get an answer from them,” Tsirigoti said. But that route turned out to be a dead end.
Tsirigoti hoped that the phone found on the mother would hold clues, so in December 2018 she turned to the Hellenic police’s anti-terrorism unit—not because she suspected that the women had been killed in an act of terrorism, but because the unit is the most technologically advanced in Greek law enforcement. Forensic analysts extracted data from the phone, including 511 contacts, 282 text messages, the dates, times, and numbers associated with 194 calls, and hundreds of photos and videos. Additional messages were found on social media platforms, along with data indicating when and where Wi-Fi was activated.
Sifting through the information, Tsirigoti was able to begin piecing together the women’s identities. They were from Afghanistan, and their first names were Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Fahima, the mother, was in her mid-to-late thirties. Rabiya was 17, and Farzana couldn’t have been older than 14. In the photos on the phone, they were suddenly alive. In some images they had their arms thrown around each other. Filters—floating pink hearts, rabbit ears—embellished others.
Now that Tsirigoti knew the women’s nationality, her next move was to reach out to the Afghan ambassador in Greece, Mirwais Samadi. In March 2019, she shared the black notice and other details about the case with him. A much needed stroke of luck: Samadi was close with the chief of police in Kabul. He called in a favor to accelerate the process of formally identifying the women.
Two months later, in May, Tsirigoti received a document from the Interpol office in Kabul. It stated that Fahima was married with five children: Rabiya, Farzana, and three younger ones, two boys and a girl. The whole family had left their home in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan, in early 2018. They had passed through Iran before settling in Istanbul for a few months, where they sought passage to Europe. When the Mazar-i-Sharif branch of Interpol received photos of the deceased women, one of Fahima’s sisters and an uncle identified them; law enforcement was able to corroborate their identities with a brother-in-law of Fahima’s living in Europe.
Tsirigoti then turned her attention to Turkey, visiting the country five times as part of the investigation. She worked with the Turkish authorities, trying to track down men who may have come in contact with Fahima and her daughters. Since the women were migrants, they almost certainly had paid smugglers to get them across the Evros River. Those men could be murder suspects or the last people to see the women alive.
But that summer, Tsirigoti’s investigation came to a sudden halt. Political allegiances run deep in Greece, and Tsirigoti had been appointed to her post under the leftist Syriza government, which in the July 2019 elections lost power to the center-right New Democracy party. The new government made sweeping changes to police leadership, and on July 23 Tsirigoti, only 54 at the time, was forced to retire. “I didn’t finish the investigation,” she said, “and I feel very sad about it. But the police is a man’s world.” She shrugged.
Before vacating her office, Tsirigoti spoke with the officer who would take over the case. She made him swear to God he’d solve it. He promised he would, then handed it off to a small team of young male officers. It soon stagnated as police cooperation along the Greek-Turkish border all but ceased under the new government.
Conflict between Greece and Turkey stretches back centuries. After nearly 400 years of occupation by the Ottomans, Greece declared independence in 1821. Four wars followed. In 1923, a forced population exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Greeks living in Turkey for 400,000 Muslim Turks living in Greece drastically altered the demographic makeup of each country. Refugees came to constitute one-fifth of Greece’s population—among them was Tsirigoti’s grandmother.
Another influx of refugees, this time in the 21st century, became a new source of acrimony between Greece and Turkey; both countries are keen to stir the pot of nationalist ideology and point fingers at each other when it suits them. Greece insists that Turkey isn’t doing enough to stop displaced people from crossing into European territory, while Turkey, host to the world’s largest refugee population, accuses Greece of pushback measures. Caught in the middle are migrants and refugees, human beings treated as pawns.
With her professional experience and fervent commitment to justice, Tsirigoti had managed to bulldoze through political hostilities to investigate the murders of Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Without her there was a risk that the crime might never be solved. When we first met, in January 2020, Tsirigoti was still keeping an eye on the case, albeit from afar. She also had a theory about what had happened to the women. She leaned in close to tell me. Behind her, cars zipped down a busy Athens street. “It is my belief that this was an honor killing,” Tsirigoti said.
It seemed reductionist to assume that foreign women had been killed for foreign reasons, as opposed to a smuggling gone wrong, a mangled burglary, or something else related to the perilous journey they’d made to Europe. A form of gendered violence seen primarily in extremely conservative communities, honor killings usually occur when a woman or girl is believed to have tarnished a man’s reputation. These are not crimes of opportunity—they necessarily involve a perpetrator motivated by a desire to protect what he perceives as his dignity. Who might have had that motive, and why? Tsirigoti didn’t have an answer, but she thought she knew who might.
Found on the phone in Fahima’s pocket were photos of a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties, with deep-set eyes and black hair that swooped across his broad forehead. There were images of him with Fahima’s daughters in a park, and one of him sitting on a sofa. In some of these, he had his arms around Fahima; in one, she kissed his cheek. What was his relationship to the women? Could it have been a reason for violence, committed by him or by someone else?
Data from the phone indicated that the young man may have been the last person to see Fahima and her daughters alive. Law enforcement had no idea where he was. I told Tsirigoti that I’d try to find him. Then, in a rush of bravado, I went further: I said that I would find out what happened to the three women.
“OK,” Tsirigoti said with a chuckle. “Good luck.”