The Black Route of Death From Syria

On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria

Syrian refugees along the Syrian-Turkish border (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thought to be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”

“You have to understand,” the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire once wrote in relation to refugees, “that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Embedded in this week’s horrific news is a harrowing reality: The 71 migrants who perished en route to Austria were escaping a hell they must have considered far worse than the forbidding truck they crowded into.

In June, Anthony Faiola at The Washington Post masterfully profiled a family that made just such a calculation—and whose journey may have been quite similar to those taken by the migrants found in Austria. Faiola and photographer Charles Ommanney traveled with the family along parts of the “Black Route” stretching from the shores of Greece through the Balkans to the European Union.

The main subject of the reporting is Ahmed Jinaid, a 42-year-old former deliveryman who makes his way from Aleppo, Syria to Gmünd, Austria with his brother-in-law, niece, and nephew; a few thousand euros; and a $275 Samsung Galaxy phone. He’d left his six kids behind in Syria, along with his wife, who was recovering from a bullet wound, and his younger brother, who was in a wheelchair after being hit in the spine by a bullet. For Ahmed, the distance between Aleppo and Gmünd is measured not just in miles (an arduous 2,000), but in conniving smugglers, extortionist gang members, an untreated goiter and slipped disk, and 15 days in a Hungarian jail.

“We would only die once in Syria,” Ahmed says at one point, after his brother-in-law is nearly hit by a car in Belgrade, Serbia. “Here we are dying 5,000 times.”

An Austrian police officer by the truck where more than 70 migrants lost their lives (Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters)

According to Faiola, the Jinaid family’s journey embodies not only the “desperation of war,” but also the “dysfunction of the European Union” in the face of the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II:

That’s because many of the Syrians and Iraqis landing in Greece stand a good chance of qualifying for legal asylum. But there is little work and few prospects for aid in this bankrupt country. Farther north, in promised lands such as Austria, France, Germany and Sweden, asylum means shelter, a generous stipend and the prospect of a good job. The European Union, however, offers no safe passage there. Hence the Black Route.

Ahmed Jinaid’s is just one story. Seventy-one others were abruptly cut short this week, somewhere on the road between Hungary and Austria.