Would you have imagined that one day, the words ‘migrant’ and ‘crisis’ would practically become one single word, that you would never hear news about migration without it being described as a tragedy, as an unwanted ill, as something we must unite to fight? Would you have ever imagined that there isn’t a day going by without news report about ‘migrants’ boats’ rescued at sea or – as it has been the case most recently of migrant boats that countries fight not to allow on their shores? Could you imagine that more that almost 35,000 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2000? That one migrant dies for every 50 to 70 who reach Europe?
Today, I want to talk about all those Africans who die at sea. Not so much to denounce the fact that so many young men and women, some with their families decide to embark on such perilous journey – who am I to judge their choice? Rather, I want to mourn these losses of lives and celebrate the men and women who try to give them dignity in at the end of a journey that ignores what that word means.
So, today’s story is not one of migrants who attempted that journey, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. It isn’t either the story of a courageous individual fighting to rescue those migrants at sea or fights to change the mindsets of European leaders, who seem to have lost any measure of decency faced to one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies of our life time. I will share some of those stories in the days to come.
Today’s story is one we seldom here: what would you do If you lived in a small town on the Northern African side of the Mediterranean, went fishing and instead of finding fish, you would find the bodies of men, women and children carried by the sea to your shores, miles away from where they drowned?
Today, I am inspired by Chamseddine Marzoug of Tunisia. Chamseddine was born in 1965 in Zarzis a town in South-Eastern Tunisia, near Djerba. Located between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, Zarzis is about 190 km south of the capital and only 80 km for the Libyan border.
He grew up in Tunis and moved back to his hometown with his wife and five children in 1990 to work as a fisherman and part-time taximan.
In the early 2000s, Chamseddine started working as a volunteer with the Tunisian Red Crescent in his spare time. It’s in that capacity that he first encountered sub-Saharan migrants staying in a refugee camp near Zarzis.
He didn’t know in these days that his engagement with migrants would take a completely different and unexpected turn in 2005. In that fatidic year, Chamseddine and his fellow fishermen started finding migrants in the sea. At the beginning, they were able to rescue a few people who were still alive but as time went by, there were less and less people alive.
As you can imagine, the bodies also washed on the beaches of Zarzis. The sight was terrifying, he had never seen anything like that.
Every time he found a body, he would take to the cemetery, take a moment to pray for them and bury them with dignity.
As you can imagine as well, this small town’s cemetery had never seen such an important influx of bodies in all the years since Zarzis was created, back in colonial times. You could miss the migrants unmarked grave, next to the gravestones with pictures, dates, and epitaphs.”
In 2011, when a boat transporting 54 Syrians became shipwrecked off the coast, and had to be buried in the local cemetery, some families started opposing the burying of migrants in the city’s cemeteries.
The authorities were forced to grant a piece of land for the burial of migrants but all they could find was a small 600 sq. metre plot of land wedged between the town dump and an olive grove. It was not the best choice, not only because of its former use as a city dump but also because the soil was sandy and unstable. But that’s all they had, and Chamseddine was decided to make the best of it.
What mattered for him was that to make sure the migrants had a proper resting place, a place where their relatives might one day come to find them if they ever come looking for them
He didn’t have any money to fence the land or make it look time the other cemeteries in town, all he managed to do was to paint a big sign that said “Cemetery for Unknown” in half a dozen languages.
You might think it’s unlikely anyone would ever think of coming to look for their relatives in this small Tunisian town, but it does happen from time to time.
Unfortunately, even if people were to come, the reality is that they would never know which of those graves had the person thy were looking for; most bodies are found without any identification. Of all the 400 people Chamseddine has buried in this cemetery in the last seven years, only one grave has a name: Rosemary, a 28 years old young woman who was identified by survivors of the boat she was on.
All the other graves only have a number on it: it’s the number written on ID bracelets and body bags from the morgue. Chamseddine and the Red Cross, apart from trying to obtain an appropriate and fenced-in area with more decent graves, have been fighting to pair the numbered graves with the relevant police files to make any future identification possible.
Knowing that wouldn’t still be enough, Chamseddine dreams of creating a DNA bank and archive as it has been done in other countries were families were killed or died far from their loved ones. He doesn’t know much about the people he buries but he would like to treat them as his family would be treated if they were found somewhere in similar situation.
“The dead are someone’s husband, someone’s child, wife, sister or brother. Would you bury your loved ones in this manner?”
Last year, his eldest son, who was 21 at the time, secretly arranged with friends to flee to Europe. He left on a migrant boat for Italy and thank God, he arrived safely. It’s only from Italy that he called his father to let him know where he was.
A few months later, his 18-year-old son followed his brother on another illegal migrant boat without telling his father. Thank God, he reached the other side alive and is now with his older brother.
“My sons are lucky.”
His three other kids, all girls, are still in Tunisia. His two eldest daughters are married, and he has hope that his youngest daughter, 12 years old, will one day go to University so she can have better prospects then her parents and her siblings.
He himself had never imagine leaving his country, and certainly not board any of what he “boats of death.”
As you can expect, Chamseddine has become the person to go to or call when a body is found. Sometimes neighbours even come and knock at his door in the night to alert him that ‘new’ migrants were found. He alerts local officials and borrows a friend’s van to take the bodies to the hospital for post-mortems by a Red Crescent volunteer doctor, and for washing and burial.
In the last ten years, he has buried about 400 migrants. Last year alone, he buried about the fourth of all those migrants.
Everybody he finds reminds him of the inhumanity of the world, the cruelty of the smugglers. Can you imagine that some bodies are found their hands tied behind their backs? Sometimes, women are found tied with a kid? What type of Evil lives in a person who does dot a defenceless person, a person whose only crime was to dream of a better life.
Chamseddine is angry and rightly so. And not just angry against the smugglers, some of whom unfortunately come from his own country Tunisia. He is angry as the Europeans, who have made this worst for the migrants, literally putting them in the hands of these inhumane exploiters.
He made sure that message came loud and clear when he was invited in Strasbourg in April this year to speak at the European Parliament. He wasn’t afraid to denounce Europeans country who put money in the pockets of shameless governments who use it for their own enrichment:
“Don’t invest in the corrupt governments but invest in the people. Your money should go into the people’s pockets.”
The 52 years old fisherman who was forced into a life he had never planned for knows this might be the beginning of a very long journey. He is ready, whatever it will take, tirelessly answering every call and every knock at his door.
“They are not at fault for being buried here. We are at fault. You are at fault. The world is at fault. The truly guilty are the politicians keeping them from leaving. The migrants are African, and no one is interested in them. But if it had been a man with blond hair and green eyes, you would all be interested.
It is far from over. There might be 40% fewer now, but Libya is still in a state of chaos, and if you look at what’s happening now, there are over 100 different militias. And when the boats are intercepted and returned to the coast, the migrants simply make another attempt from Libya, or here from Tunisia as well.”
It is estimated that more than 4400 disappeared or died in the Mediterranean last year. Most of the bodies will never be found and receive proper burial. The ones found are buried in Tunisia, Libya and Italy.