They Ran for a Better Life, Straight Into a Wildfire

As they traversed the harsh, wooded terrain in northeastern Greece, the 18 asylum seekers were presented with an agonizing dilemma: Take the safer route through villages and over highways, but into the arms of the Greek authorities, or travel through the forests and fields being ravaged by Europe’s largest recorded wildfire.

They opted for the forests.

On Aug. 21, around 9 p.m., the group of asylum seekers burned to death in Europe’s largest recorded wildfire. Their bodies, charred beyond recognition, were discovered the next day.

Greek authorities assumed the victims were migrants because no one was looking for missing people locally. And for more than a month, their identities, and the circumstances of their deaths, remained a mystery.

But over weeks of reporting, The New York Times was able to piece together previously unknown details about the group’s journey in its desperate final hours. The reporting shows that at least 12 had already been captured once before by Greek border guards and turned back to Turkey.

Their decision to risk the wildfire was meant to avoid recapture at any cost. They were fleeing war-ravaged Syria, seeking what they hoped would be a better life in Europe.

Instead, they died on a rocky hillside, their ashes now mixed with the gray-scale landscape of Evros, where the climate crisis fueling ferocious wildfires collided with the migrant crisis that has long brought tragedy to this region.

Only one body has been identified conclusively through DNA testing, because most of the close relatives of the rest live in Syria and cannot travel to provide similar tests. But interviews with Greek officials, aid workers, more than 20 relatives of the victims, and the smuggler who put them on the route, provided extensive evidence about the identities of the others.

The Times also examined voice messages, videos, location data and images sent to family members. At least five of the victims were children or teenagers, interviews and the videos suggested.

In mid-September, a Times correspondent accompanied the brother and four cousins of the first victim to be identified to the site where he perished.

The videos and voice messages provided by relatives revealed the group’s mounting terror as they tried to outrun the fire.

As the blaze climbed the hills and rushed up behind them, the men and boys ran through the trees and down a rocky trail.

Three of them sheltered inside a tiny, disused shepherd’s shack, perhaps thinking its four concrete walls would protect them.

Two hundred feet away on a hillside, nine people huddled, among them at least two children. They died there together. Another man made it the farthest, down a hill, but he too was not fast enough.

The announcement of their deaths by Greek authorities set off panic nearly a thousand miles away in Syria, where family members began an anguished wait. They shared updates in a group chat and reconstructed their loved ones’ movements through videos and texts, expressing encouragement.

Even today, the father of one of the boys presumed to have died in the fire still holds out hope. “My heart tells me he is alive,” he said.

When Basel al-Ahmad and his older brother Qusai were growing up outside Aleppo, Syria, Basel had been the playful and mischievous one, according to one of their younger cousins, leading the gaggle of boys in epic stone-slinging competitions. But at 15, inspired by Qusai’s studiousness, Basel underwent a transformation.

He finished his master’s degree in engineering at the top of his class at the University of Aleppo, his brother said, and had spent the past few months aiding recovery efforts after the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and northwestern Syria. But he felt the only way to build a life was to join his brother and cousins in Norway, where they had all been granted refugee status over the past decade.

For decades, people fleeing conflicts and extreme poverty have traversed the harsh terrain of Evros, including the dangerous Evros River, seeking a new life in Europe. It is one of the continent’s oldest and busiest migrant routes, with Greece the first stop — and for some, the last.

1. Aug. 14 Group is detained by Greek authorities and sent back to Turkey.

2. Aug. 20 They spend the night near Avas waiting to be picked up the next day by the smuggler’s accomplices.

3. Aug. 21 The location where the group was supposed to get picked up.

4. Aug. 21 The site where the 18 asylum seekers were found burned to death.

Basel, 28, went from Syria to Turkey, and on Aug. 11, with the help of a smuggler, he crossed the border into Greece with 11 others. But three days later, the group was detained by border guards and sent back to Turkey, according to WhatsApp messages sent to Basel’s brother and reviewed by The Times.

It was not an uncommon occurrence. Greece now has a record as one of Europe’s most hostile countries toward migrants. In recent years, the authorities have cracked down on asylum seekers at the borders, often using violence and extrajudicial deportations, according to news reports, rights groups and internal findings by the E.U. border agency.

Greece’s reputation for toughness deepened in June, when as many as 650 migrants drowned off its coast in one of the Mediterranean’s worst shipwrecks in a decade. Evidence suggests that the Greek coast guard could have helped save them, but did not. The authorities have said that they are investigating the circumstances.

Domestic, international and European Union laws require Greece to give everyone a fair chance to apply for asylum, with deportations only after due process. Greek authorities say they apply a “tough but fair” policy, and deny they are doing anything wrong.

On a second attempt with the same group, Basel crossed the border into Greece on Aug. 17, two days before the wildfire broke out in the forest he was trying to traverse.

Messages to his brother show that Basel and his group, to stay out of the sight of the police and the army, had to keep running on wooded paths and hope the fire stayed behind them.

On Aug. 20, Basel sent a voice message to Qusai: A driver was supposed to pick up the group from a spot outside the village of Avas, but the fire was raging nearby.

At 4 p.m. the next day, Basel sent Qusai a video of a helicopter dropping water on the fire, very near the group.

Another video, sent at 8:12 p.m., showed part of the group, including at least five minors, walking hastily away from plumes of smoke.

“The fire has reached us!” one man told a relative. “We can no longer see the daylight.”

The group’s last known location was near Avas. Basel was last online on WhatsApp on Aug. 21 at 8:18 p.m. In interviews, several local residents said the fire burned through the area between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The next day, Greek authorities announced the 18 deaths, setting off panic among the families. Qusai began a methodical search for his younger brother.

He started on Facebook, on a page that focuses on people crossing from Turkey to northern Greece.

Qusai, now 31 and working as an engineer in Norway, wanted to believe his brother was alive, perhaps hiding, or in detention in Greece or Turkey. His mother back home called him incessantly asking for news.

A few days later, Qusai got the numbers for other relatives who had family members traveling with Basel from the smuggler who had arranged the journey. He set up a WhatsApp group where they exchanged pieces of news that they hoped suggested their loved ones were still alive.

For example, relatives saw online that during the wildfires, residents turned vigilantes had been detaining asylum seekers, claiming they were arsonists.

In one case, three vigilantes detained 13 Syrians and Pakistanis who had just crossed into Greece and were trying to escape the flames, locked them up in a windowless trailer, and livestreamed the whole episode on Facebook. The migrants were quickly released and are applying for asylum.

Some relatives were so desperate that they hoped their loved ones might be among those detained by the vigilantes.

They also pressed the smuggler who had organized Basel’s journey, a Syrian based in Turkey who goes by the name Abu Ali al-Hamwi, for information.

Smugglers keep families informed of a journey’s progress because they get paid only when the migrants reach an agreed-upon destination. Some post upbeat updates on social media to advertise their services, and suppress bad news.

The group of 18, the smuggler told the families, contained Basel’s group of 12 Syrians plus six others they had met on the way in Greece. Messages and videos sent by some of them to relatives confirm this.

The smuggler told the families that he had information they had all been detained in a camp in Greece. The asylum seekers and their families had paid 5,000 euros per person — more than $5,200 — that the smuggler could collect only when the group reached Serbia.

In a phone interview, Mr. al-Hamwi sought to defend his record as a smuggler, and said that the Greek authorities had arrested three drivers whom he had sent to rescue the group. He said he had advised the asylum seekers to turn themselves in to the authorities instead of staying in the forests.

In Basel’s group, one man was working for the smuggler in Turkey as a guide. Another was a distant cousin of Basel’s who had been working in Turkey as a construction worker, one of the 3.5 million Syrians taken in by Turkey since the war began in 2011, now increasingly unwelcome there.

Two of the youngest members of the group, Mahmoud al-Dawoud, 15, and Ali al-Dawoud, 13, were cousins. They had fled Syria to Turkey with their families in 2016, Ali’s father, Ahmad, said, and had immediately registered for resettlement, the only formal path to asylum in the European Union.

Seven years later, they were still struggling in Turkey, where, Ahmad said, public sentiment had turned against Syrians. The families decided the cousins would be safer in Europe.

The two boys can be seen in videos of Basel’s group. Still, Ahmad does not believe they are dead. “Perhaps they are in an orphanage because they are children, or in a prison,” he said.

Qusai traveled to Greece and submitted a DNA sample to the authorities on Aug. 27. Because he had a Norwegian passport, he could travel freely in Europe.

At the other end of the identification process was Pavlos Pavlidis, the only coroner in a large section of northeastern Greece. For the past two decades, it has been his job to autopsy dead asylum seekers and try to find their relatives.

“For me, it is a matter of duty,” he said in an interview. “I need to try my best to give all bodies back to their loved ones so they can be buried, no matter who they are.”

He took a deep puff from a cigarette in his office on the ground floor of the hospital in Alexandroupolis, about six miles south of where the 18 asylum seekers had been found. It was Aug. 23, the day after he had collected the bodies and performed autopsies on them.

The morgue was across the corridor. Outside, two large Red Cross refrigeration units held unclaimed bodies.

The best chance at identifying them would be DNA, Dr. Pavlidis said. “A relative will tell me, my brother was six feet tall, he had blue eyes, brown hair, a tattoo,” he said. “None of this matters when the body is burned. The eyes are gone. The hair is gone. The skin is gone. The body shrivels.”

On Sept. 6, 10 days after submitting DNA, Qusai got the call: His sample showed definitively that he was the brother of one of the victims. Basel was dead. The rest of his group were most likely dead, as well.

The news ripped through the WhatsApp group. Some disputed the DNA technology: We need to see the bodies, they said, even though they were unrecognizable. Others privately messaged Qusai: How can we give DNA?

All that was left was for Qusai to make the journey he dreaded. Flanked by four cousins, he flew to meet Dr. Pavlidis and identify the body. And he wanted to arrange for his brother to be sent to their mother in Aleppo, for a proper burial.

For 3,200 euros, or $3,400, a Muslim funeral parlor agreed to transport the body across Turkey to the Syrian border. There, Basel’s remains were handed over to Syrian undertakers who took them to a burial site outside Aleppo. On Sept. 13, their mother and other relatives laid him to rest.

Qusai also wanted to see — needed to see — where Basel died. Until that point, he had maintained his composure, but when he reached the hillside, accompanied by his cousins, he collapsed in anguish. He screamed and beat the ashen earth. He ran inside what was left of a shed and would not get out. He tumbled down the hill through the burned trees. His cousins ran after him, held him, mourned with him, their laments cutting through the eerie stillness across the scorched hills.

About an hour later, Qusai sat in the car, staring ahead blankly.

The last thing he had to do was give a copy of his passport to the local fire department. In the small office of a lieutenant fire colonel, Dimitris Lykidis, a middle-aged, heavyset man with blackened hands, Qusai clasped his phone quietly.

“I collected your brother’s body,” Lt. Lykidis said, avoiding eye contact as he pretended to type up a form. “I was one of the firefighters on the scene.”

Qusai stood. “Please, can I hug you?” he asked. “You were among the last to see my brother. Thank you. I am sorry about what happened.”

Lt. Lykidis stood up, eyes brimming with tears. He opened his big arms and held Qusai.

“I’m sorry, too,” he said. “I’m very sorry.”

Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Berlin.