Hardly a day passes by without a body being recovered
Almost every day this week Chamseddine Marzoug, unwilling gravedigger, has called to announce a new burial at the cemetery of nameless migrants in Zarzis, southern Tunisia. Although every burial reveals the fundamental inadequacy of the situation and a certain indifference to death, he has fulfilled this duty for more than ten years. Former fisherman, former taxi driver, former aid worker, and continuing volunteer for the Tunisian Red Crescent, Chamseddine belongs to a network of volunteers that formed in Zarzis when the number of deaths from the Libyan route began to rise.
“Two more people today…I had to wait five hours at the port,” he says about the long wait before the bodies were taken to the hospital for the medical report. “And the municipal truck wasn’t available, so I had to borrow the van from Mongi Slim” – the head of the southern Tunisian branch of the Red Crescent.
In recent years the municipality of Zarzis has built up a fairly organised system for the management of sea victims, explains Valentina Zagaria, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the London School of Economics who has been conducting ethnographic research on migration and people lost in the Mediterranean. “Firemen take care of the corpses on the shore, and the Garde Nationale Maritime of those in the sea; later they are taken to the local hospital for the certification of death and, if necessary, the prosecutor sends them to the forensic unit of Gabes hospital.” Transport is one of many problems as “the municipality is supposed to see to it, but the only vehicle available was a dustcart.” After several meetings with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, they admitted that maybe the carrier was not the most appropriate. “However, they repeated that it was the only one they had, so Mongi Slim privately offered his van.” A white Renault Kangoo.
The cemetery of nameless dead
“After the kiosk, turn left,” Chamseddine shows us, “and now, toul toul – go straight on – turn onto that dirt road and keep straight…Here we are, stop.” We look at him to make sure we’ve understood correctly. “Yes, this is it, this is the cemetery.” A small plot of land next to two pillars submerged under one metre of rubbish. Succulent plants shaped like red and green stars defy the aridity of sand among debris, rubbish, and plastic bags, some recently ploughed heaps just barely discernible. “That one was a woman, we only found half of her,” Chamseddine says, unaware of how morbid he sounds.
On the other side of the cemetery is one of those olive fields which make southern Tunisia, especially Zarzis and Djerba, so famous. “The owner of the olive grove began to protest; he doesn’t want us to bury the bodies here,” Chamseddine remarks indignantly. “You know, many people in Zarzis don’t even know that this is a cemetery.” He points to the sand heaps with a natural gesture. “That one was a boy we found after he’d been at sea for three months.” He adds that while sometimes corpses are washed ashore by the currents, sometimes they are found by fishermen. Then a silence full of wind falls on our speechless gaze.
Against his will Chamseddine has become the unofficial gravedigger of the victims of the Mediterranean for, according to him, “not everyone is capable of burying people in such a state. All that’s left is a piece of salt.” He has worked for migrants and refugees with the Red Crescent for years, starting out at the refugee camp in Choucha up to its closure in 2013 and then helping migrants and asylum seekers in the “foyers”: the reception centres in Medenine. “When the war broke out in Libya in 2011, thousands of refugees arrived. Every family in Zarzis opened their homes to accommodate people fleeing the war.” Those were hard times, but they left a vivid memory of solidarity in him, even if the present result is just bitter routine.
“Sometimes, when you see a dead body, you begin to cry because you think that this boy or girl has a family somewhere waiting for them, but they ended up here, buried like this.” This is why he continues to care so much for their burial; but every time he comes back to the cemetery, he cannot keep his indignation in check. “You can feel the anger of the souls here,” he cries. “It’s a crime that people are being buried like this in 2017. Why? Is it because they’re Africans? This is racism!”
The problem of deaths, just like the problem of migration from Libya, is not new. According to estimates, there have been more than 46,000 victims and missing persons over the last twenty years. “Before 2011, bodies were buried in a part of the Lazragh cemetery known as the Ghuraba cemetery,” Mongi Slim explains. In Tunisian, it simply means “cemetery of the strangers.” Mongi Slim owns a chemist’s shop in El Mouensa, one of Zarzis’ neighbourhoods, but he has been the head of the Red Crescent for years. In addition to organising humanitarian resources, he sees to the unresolved problem of Zarzis cemetery, which has become his personal obsession since any solution seems less and less viable. “Cemeteries are shared among families here; for this reason, we are trying to raise funds to build a new cemetery with individual and numbered graves that can be paired with police dossiers. Things have already improved — in the past, these bodies were just thrown away.”
As Valentina Zagaria clarifies, Zarzis only became a city during the period of French colonisation. “Before that, there were many separate neighbourhoods, each one with its own cemetery.” When the French arrived, “they built the Christian and Jewish cemeteries next to the Lazragh one – which is a family name – and decided, according to their own city planning, to make it the centre of the city.” As a matter of fact, families still manage and organise the cemeteries. “The tombs all seem the same, they’re very simple, just two or three stones, often without even a written gravestone, so if you don’t know where to search, it’s impossible to find a grave.” In Ben Guerdane, a city on the Libyan border, the situation is different “because it is a colonial city with only two cemeteries; the municipality has more control over their organisation and it is easier to find an available space to bury foreigners.” The configuration of Zarzis, on the contrary, reflects its social fabric and history as well as the relationship with death, which varies from one culture to another. “We are used to gravestones with pictures, dates, and epitaphs, that’s why we find the foreign cemetery in Zarzis so shocking,” Valentina concludes.
Cemeteries and identifications
Everything changed in 2011 when 54 Syrians became shipwrecked off the coast and local families started protesting against their burial in the city cemeteries. The extent of that tragedy forced the municipality to grant a small plot of land, “but it’s unsuitable because an old landfill lies underneath and the soil is sandy and unstable,” Mongi Slim says. Together with the Red Cross, for years he has been trying to obtain an appropriate and fenced-in area with numbered graves that can be paired with dossiers. “This is the real problem,” Valentina explains. “If you can’t connect the graves to the relevant police dossiers, any attempt at identification is unthinkable because you would have to exhume all the buried bodies.”
In addition to the technical means, the extraction of DNA would require a complete reorganisation of the cemetery and, therefore, political intervention. “Even in Italy, where DNA detection remains uncommon, they managed to identify the victims of two specific shipwrecks,” Valentina says, referring to the research she carried out in Lampedusa where the “story” of the wreck made it possible to trace the people. But without this kind of account, and with single bodies arriving here after months at sea, not only is it difficult to establish a location for burial, identification chances are next to zero.
“Depending on the currents, bodies usually end up in Libya, or Ben Gardane or Zarzis, nowhere else,” Mongi Slim says. By the time European NGOs arrived in 2016, Zarzis’s fishermen had been involved in hundreds of rescues; nevertheless, they continue to help survivors, just like they did on May 30. “When the fishermen came back to the port with the people they’d rescued from the sea, the reaction of the locals was always the same,” he remembers. “How long will these people stay here? Do they have a right to stay? Will they leave? they asked, venting their resentment. But when the first dead bodies arrived, it was a real shock for the community.” His voice chokes with emotion as he talks about the first one they found: “He was a boy, he was wearing jeans…And I wondered about how happy he must have been when he left, what he expected to find… All his dreams died here with him.”
Fishermen have been those most exposed to this slaughter, so much so that when they managed to found their own organisation after the Tunisian revolution of 2011, one of their priorities was to debate and train for sea rescues. “We always bring more food than necessary with us in case we find a migrant dinghy,” Anis Belhaj says, showing us the couscous packets and bottles of milk in the larder of his boat. But sometimes migrants are already dead when the fishermen find them. “In 2013, in a fishing zone of two square miles, we found more than 400 bodies,” he remembers, hinting at a vast area with his eyes. “They were everywhere, it was a cemetery at sea.”
His gaze is melancholic and every word seems to cost him too much energy. I try to tease him, saying that he looks like a true old sea dog. He amusedly replies that a Tunisian journalist called him one in a reportage, but that he did not know what it meant. After studying architecture in Tunis, he decided to come back to Zarzis and become a fisherman with his brother.
The fishermen’s condition
Anis approaches the windows of the Fishermen Association meeting room and shows us some pictures of the fishermen during sea rescues, their arrivals at harbour, the people they have rescued. Hundreds of pictures hang between sailing knots and life buoys. While we are looking at them, Chamseddine Bourassine, the president of the association, arrives. “Before 2011,” he says, “we had a lot of trouble with the Tunisian authorities because they didn’t want us to take people on board, they told us to leave them where they were. But a man at sea is a dead man, we couldn’t abandon them.”
Rescue operations are difficult. “It’s dangerous for us, too,” Bourassine continues, “because people are scared, sometimes they jump into the water and cause utter chaos.” But Libyan troops are the main hindrance. “They try to steal our boats; they shot one of our sailors once, too.” In fact, most of the fishing boats from Zarzis are not equipped with sophisticated radars, and the Libyan troops or their Coast Guard often try to intimidate or even arrest the fishermen. Indeed, the fishermen have been accused of entering an area which Libya has unilaterally defined a fisheries protection zone since 2005 (this is the controversy about the Gulf of Sirte, which caused great inconvenience to the fishing vessels from Mazara del Vallo and to the smaller Tunisian ones).
Besides these constant threats, Zarzis, like all Tunisian suburbs, is experiencing a harsh economic and social crisis: “Many people had to sell their boats because they couldn’t pay off their debts anymore,” Anis explains. Over the last number of months protest marches and sit-ins have multiplied throughout the governorate because the situation has become unbearable. As he prepares the fishing nets and gets ready to sail, Kamel Benromdhane tells me about the time he boarded one hundred people on his small boat. “Women, children… a disaster,” he remembers. “If we see a migrant vessel, we rescue them and come back to port without even going to fish; it was so hard for us in the past, but since the arrival of the NGOs working to save them in the open sea, we feel less alone.” In every corner of the harbour fishermen are hoisting nets and buoys onto their tuna and sardine boats. “When we leave, we are afraid of seeing dead people,” says Tarek Ahmed in front of his ship. “We’re fishermen, we want to catch fish, not the dead!”
In 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières (Msf) offered the Fishermen Association a training course and some supplies, like gloves and life jackets, to be kept on board. “Lately,” Sylvie Fagard-Sultan from Msf reveals, “they’ve asked for better radios to be able to communicate between them and with the National Guard if they sight any bodies at sea.” But once they call the National Guard for help, the fishermen have to wait until they come, and sometimes it can take several hours. For this reason, many of them do not send the alert anymore because they just cannot handle the situation.
Outside the harbourmaster’s office in Zarzis, engraved on an old rusty container, a piece by Luis Gomez watches over the horizon. On the left, the face of a man looks straight at us. On the right, there is the nape of another man’s neck. And in the middle, the empty silhouette of those who lost their lives during the journey.
Cover photo: Chamseddine Marzoug, volunteer of the Red Crescent, in the cemetery of the nameless in Zarzis. (Photo: Giulia Bertoluzzi, like all the photos in this article).
Translation by Lucrezia De Carolis. Proofreading by Alexander Booth.