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Saved screaming from a sinking refugee boat... the abandoned toddler fleeing child kidnappers and ISIS butchers; EXPOSED: Evil trade in innocents bought and sold to pay for jihadi guns and bombs.

Byline: EXCLUSIVE From MATTHEW DRAKE Chief Reporter in Alexandroupolis, Northern Greece

FIGHTING for breath between enormous sobs, her long hair matted with seaweed, this little girl was found alone on a sinking ramshackle wooden boat, arms outstretched and screaming for her mother.

The petrified two-year-old refugee was fleeing a murderous world of child traffickers who wanted to sell her - and Islamic State butchers who would have hacked her to pieces in the name of jihad or sold her to pay for more guns and bombs.

And all this weeping little innocent wanted was her mummy as her naval rescuers - with tears in their own eyes - plucked her to safety from the Mediterranean off the Greek coast.

The toddler, called Rida, was rushed trembling with exhaustion to a child rescue centre, seemingly yet another orphan of the storm of madness engulfing the Middle East.

A storm that has driven thousands to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on makeshift boats to what they hope will be freedom. Often with deadly results.

But out of hell, sometimes comes hope. Today Rida is playing happily with toys in the safety of the Arsis child rescue centre in the port of Alexandroupolis. And, better still, they have found her mum.

Revealing the youngster's miraculous survival, centre manager Ermioni Stamati told the Sunday Mirror: "The baby was discovered on the sinking boat all alone and stranded. Her long curly hair was full of seaweed.

"She was very traumatised, screaming for her mother and crying constantly. It was extremely difficult for everyone. Once we managed to calm her down a little and cleaned her, it was clear she was very scared and had no idea where she was."

An Iraqi identification card was found in the remains of the wrecked boat that yielded the baby's name and her date of birth. Ermioni said: "Nobody knew at first how she ended up where she did.

"There had been other refugees on the boat but they say they had no idea about her. They were older and seemed to have no clue about her family."

Often in the mad scramble into the refugee vessels leaving the shores of Turkey, parents are separated from their children, travelling on different boats - and it is then the youngsters can fall prey to child traffickers.

In Rida's case, it seems her sinking craft ironically saved her from that fate as all the other passengers fled to safety.

Ermioni says: "We believe this is what happened to this girl. Traffickers have been buying and selling young children throughout this migrant crisis.

"We were later told the child had been travelling with smugglers who claimed she was a gift to them."

The port of Alexandroupolis has become a gateway for those fleeing wartorn countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Experienced staff at the Arsis centre pieced together Rida's background after her dramatic arrival three weeks ago. The Turkmen tribe she belongs to is one of the religious sects being persecuted by Sunni extremists from IS who have wiped out thousands and dumped them in mass graves.

Turkmen are a large minority, up to three million strong. They are mainly Muslims, with Sunnis slightly outnumbering Shi'ites.

Historically, Turkmen have enjoyed a stronger position than most minorities. They have been represented in the higher levels of government. But the Shi'ites among them have fallen foul of IS, which has destroyed their places of worship.

The terrorists have also launched their own grim trade in kidnapped Turkmen women and girls who they sell off to pay for weapons and ammunition.

Rida's mother was eventually tracked down in Greece. She feared her daughter had died in the sinking boat.

Ermioni said: "We searched for two weeks through Iraqi people to trace her parents. We believed we had no hope and that her mother must have been kidnapped by IS. But we found her. It is our job to try to reunite these children where possible with their parents or a member of the extended family."

Revealing the appalling scale of the crisis in which thousands of refugees die each week trying to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe, Ermioni said: "Many children have either been kidnapped by traffickers along the journey or their parents are tricked into separating from them. Traffickers then sell on the youngsters.

"In this case the baby and her mother could not stay in Iraq as they would have been killed or sold by IS butchers.

REUNITED "And because countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria are at war internally there are no embassies or passports. Many of these people are doctors, dentists or engineers fleeing death."

Ermioni said the centre was supporting more children every week and had already reunited over 40 youngsters with their parents. But she said others were not as fortunate as Rida. "We had one case where a mother and her two daughters tried to cross the Evros river and the boat sank," said Ermioni.

"The woman came to us looking for her daughters and we were unable to help her. Eventually the body of one was found and she had to identify her at the morgue. She has never found the body of her other daughter.

"One girl had been travelling with her mother and sister across the Med when another boat came alongside and traffickers kidnapped her mother and sibling. She has not seen them since.

"To reunite the children with their parents takes on average about six months. If the parents are dead we search for other family members. Many of the people we see either want to claim welfare in Sweden or get work in Germany. When they arrive they can claim asylum. None want to stay in Greece because we are in crisis."

Alexandroupolis has become a gateway for migrants trying to pass undetected into the country from its land border with Turkey.

The river Evros which runs along Greece's 93-mile frontier with Turkey as it winds down from the Balkan mountains to the Aegean sea, has become another major death trap for migrants desperate to enter the EU. At dawn on Friday, the Sunday Mirror watched refugees trying to make the dangerous crossing in a makeshift wooden boat.

A police source said: "Gang masters on the Turkish side are selling these people inadequate plastic boats to make the crossing.

BODIES "The problem is that the rafts are not fit for the journey and many sink. It is a quick flowing deep river and the mud beneath is heavy. We have no idea how many bodies the riverbed is holding because flooding caused by the opening of a dam in Bulgaria has seen the river overflow for miles." Locals say only 10 per cent of the bodies recovered are ever identified after they wash up as parts that have lain in the water for weeks are often reduced to bones.

Most refugees refuse to carry documents as they do not want to be sent back to their countries of origin.

North of Alexandroupolis, on a hilltop outside the village of Sidiro, a graveyard has been created as a resting place for those who die crossing the river. Each grave is marked by a mound of soil.

Sofia Hatsisavas, a local hotel manager, said: "There are three main problems with people crossing the river.

"Many are dying because they simply cannot swim. Others are walking on mines laid during the days of conflict between Turkey and Greece. And many more are dying from hypothermia because it is cold here, especially during winter.

"Many people have tried to help and several coffee shops even stay open overnight to help them keep warm."

An extra 1,800 police officers have been deployed to patrol the Evros. And a fence with thermal sensors has been erected along sections of the border now covered by the flooded river.

But still the death toll continues to mount. Which makes the miracle of little Rida even more precious.

matthew.drake@sundaymirror.co.uk COMMENT: PAGE 14 We have changed the two-year-old's name for legal reasons.

She was crying for her mother. It was clear she had no idea where she was

CAPTION(S):

Miracle: Rida found alone on sinking boat Pictures: JOHN ALEVROYIANNIS

Safe: with Ermioni

Waiting: for mum to come

Refuge: for orphans in Arsis Centre
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Apr 26, 2015
Words:1387
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