AP’s resourceful all-formats team in Greece uncovers the heart-rending story of a migrant boy lost at sea, and his father now facing charges.

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The grave of a 5-year-old Afghan boy on the Aegean island of Samos, Greece, Feb. 22, 2021.

AP Photo / Thanassis Stavrakis

A white marble tombstone and a teddy bear, on a boy’s grave that overlooks the azure Aegean Sea.  

That poignant and arresting scene was the jump-off point for powerful and exclusive Only on AP journalism that pieced together, for AP clients in all formats, the tragedy of the death of a migrant Afghan boy killed while attempting the hazardous sea crossing from Turkey to Europe with his father.

Led by bureau chief Elena Becatoros, the AP’s team in Athens, Greece, used formidable people skills and patience to gently persuade the boy’s grieving father to recount how his 5-year-old son slipped from his arms and drowned when the boat carrying them and other migrants smashed against rocks and broke in two. 

Telling the story from the Greek island of Samos also required ingenuity, because parts of the island are military zones off-limits to cameras. Police on the island briefly detained the video crew of senior producer Theodora Tongas, video journalist Srdjan Nedeljkovic and freelancer Michalis Svarnias after they shot images of dawn breaking over the sea facing Turkey. Becatoros and Svarnias sneaked a look at the restricted coastline where the boy drowned by running along it on an evening jog, going unnoticed as they reported in their running gear.

For their dogged pursuit and sensitive telling of this heart-wrenching story, Becatoros, Tongas, Nedeljkovic, Svarnias, Athens chief photographer Thanassis Stavrakis and newsperson Derek Gatopoulos win Best of the Week honors.

Among the many deaths and other human tragedies stemming from irregular migration, the boy’s drowing leapt out at Becatoros when Greek authorities took the unprecedented step of charging his father with child endangerment, for having embarked on the perilous journey from Turkey to Samos with his son. It is believed to be the first time in the European Union that a surviving parent faces criminal prosecution for the death of their child in the pursuit of a better life in Europe.

Working with a nongovernmental organization, Becatoros tracked down the father and spent weeks delicately negotiating with him and his lawyer to secure an interview. The father eventually agreed, on condition that he only be identified by his initials and that his son not be named. Crucially for its storytelling, the AP team overcame the father’s initial refusal to appear in photos or on video. Stavrakis showed examples of previous work in persuading the father that images would help viewers identify with the story but need not reveal his identity. The team’s poignant footage and stills of the man staring out to sea and alone in his hotel room powerfully illustrated his solitude and grief. 

During the lengthy interview, Becatoros deployed all of her tact to gently encourage him to open up, delicately teasing out details. She won his trust with patience and empathy when he broke down, overcome by emotion as he recounted how he slipped under the waves, was dragged ashore and shouted himself hoarse in a desparate search for his son.

“Without him I don’t know how to live,” the father told the AP team. “All my hopes were him.”

The team also tracked down another man who had been aboard the boat that night in November. He agreed to speak on camera and on the record. His account fleshed out the narrative, adding description of the spiky-haired little boy that was too painful for the father to share. Becatoros also secured an on-camera interview with the Greek migration minister, who defended a policy of investigating people whose negligence or other acts may be responsible for loss of life. Stavrakis, meanwhile, also added photos of daily life among the refugees on Samos:

The depth of detail in the text, photo and video package put human faces on grim statistics relating to irregular migration. More than 2,000 people died or went missing from 2014 to 2020 on the eastern Mediterranean migration route, the vast majority through Greece, according to the United Nations refugee agency.  

The story was a winner with AP clients and users of the news cooperative’s AP News app. Compelling video edits by Gatopoulos, specifically tailored for online use, also drew readers to the story.

For its sensitive all-formats story-telling, in difficult circumstances, of one of the many tragedies of irregular migration, the team of Becatoros, Tongas, Nedeljkovic, Svarnias, Stavrakis and Gatopoulos earns AP’s Best of the Week award.

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