Tens of thousands of Tunisians looking for a better life have boarded ships, usually in the dead of night, to try and cross the Mediterranean and make it to Europe. Just this year, more than 500 died while trying. But the latest shipwreck off Zarzis in September was particularly tragic: many on board were children, including a mother and her baby.
“This tragedy is different…it is excruciating this time,” said Noureddine Gantri, a blogger and manager of the popular local news outlet “Zarzis TV.”
In the weeks since, enraged locals have directed their anger at officials who buried their dead children in secret and allegedly gave families false hope with a fabricated story that their loved ones were alive in Libya. Nearly two months later, locals are continuing to dig up unmarked graves to try and find their loved ones, and the issue has reached the desk of President Kais Saied and sparked an official investigation. In this report, we try to recount the story from day one, piecing together video and photographic evidence as well as testimonies from those on the ground. In mid-October, Meshkal went to Zarzis to document some of the unrest, to interview families of the would-be migrants, and to speak with local fishermen who put their livelihoods on hold to volunteer and search for the dead.
A BOAT IN THE NIGHT
On Wednesday, September 21, a small fishing boat [chkaf] set off at night from the coast of Zarzis towards Italy with at least 17 people on board, including a baby, ten children and two women. Locals say the journey to the closest Italian island of Lampedusa is supposed to take between 22 to 30 hours, but after more than 30 hours, families still had no contact with those on board. By Saturday the 24th, with still no word from their loved ones, families went to the local coast guard office at the port as well as the offices of other local authorities to ask for help searching for the migrants. But families said that authorities initially told them they couldn’t launch a rescue mission because of strong winds. Local fishermen confirm there were strong winds that day, but that the winds subsided within a few hours and that the weather was not bad enough to prevent boats from setting out.
“There is a rule that’s known here,” said Gantri, the blogger. “If the families don’t hear from their relatives on the boat after more than 24 hours, they tell the concerned authorities to launch a search. And that’s what didn’t happen. The search did not start after 24 hours, and that’s what led families to start protesting and pushed the fishermen to initiate the search.”
In the hours, days, and weeks since then, locals in Zarzis have expressed growing frustration and resentment towards authorities for not doing enough and for keeping information about recovered and buried bodies hidden. The first serious demonstrations began on Sunday the 25th, when families of the irregular migrants used furniture, garbage cans, and burning tires to block the main roads of the neighborhood of Essuehal, where many of the migrants originated.
“When we first rushed to the governor, he promised to take serious decisions to save our children just to calm us down. The next day, we expected to find the maritime authorities scouting the shores, but we found no one. That’s when we started protesting,” said one local woman who declined to give her name but is a neighbor of one of the families and herself has a son who once made the same sea crossing and is currently living in France.
On the morning of Sunday the 25th, demonstrators headed for the main Zarzis fishing port to put pressure on local authorities and force the coast guard to set sail in search of the boat.
“Every time we addressed a certain relevant authority, they pretended to know nothing and sent us to another [authority],” said Rhayem Ben Aouada, giving as examples the municipality and the national guard. Ben Aouada had three relatives on the boat: his little cousin Yassin Abdelkrim, his 26-year-old sister Mouna, and his eight-month-old niece, Sajda Nasr, Mouna’s baby.
Eventually, locals took the issue up with the governor of Medenine (Zarzis is part of Medenine governorate), Saied ben Zayed. But instead of action, locals claim officials made up a story about the migrants, saying that they were in good health but had ended up in Libya–just under 100 kilometers away–and that a local militia there had taken them hostage and demanded a ransom payment. This allegation was told to Meshkal by Ben Aouada as well as several other locals who lost family members in the boat. Bassam al-Warimi, who lost two of his cousins in the boat (24-year-old Malek al-Warimi and Ayman, a minor) said in an interview with DW Arabiya that authorities were saying that “the migrants of the boat are being held in Libya” until a fisherman found one of the bodies by chance.
This false Libya story was made more credible when some locals received phone calls from international numbers demanding ransom for the migrants, with details about how the ransom payments were to be made to someone in Ben Guerdane, a town on the border with Libya, some families reported to Meshkal.
Meshkal attempted to get comments on these allegations and other details about the boat sinking and the official response from Atef Houij, an official designated by the Medenine governor to head an ad hoc crisis group handling the shipwreck case. However, in a phone call with Meshkal, Houij declined to respond to questions.
Ben Aouada and several other locals made the claim that the governor of Medenine himself, Saied ben Zayed, told them the Libya story when locals went to him demanding action. Governor Ben Zayed was not in Zarzis when Meshkal was there reporting in mid-October as some locals said they had chased him out of the city on October 14 (some claimed this video showed locals chasing ben Zayed’s car out of town).
“He [ben Zayed] made us believe that [Libya story in order] to stop the search,” Ben Aouada claimed, adding he didn’t know why the governor would want to stop the search.
Meshkal was unable to reach Governor ben Zayed or his office to ask for his version of events or to respond to the allegations made against him. The mayor of Zarzis, Mekki al Aridh, said in a video statement published by the Zarzis local government’s official Facebook page that he would refrain from commenting on the case as it’s under investigation by the public prosecutor, promising that “we are obliged to not offer any information…except to the one in charge of the investigation,” adding that he had received a promise from the public prosecutor that he would “discover the truth within a judicial framework by hearing [testimonies] from all those involved and affected.”
HOPE LOST, BODIES FOUND
Families told Meshkal that partly because of the false Libya story, they held out hope that their loved ones were still alive. That all changed on October 4, thirteen days after the boat’s departure, when a fisherman from Djerba found a floating backpack containing the phone and identity card of 24-year old Malek al-Warimi who had been on the migrant boat. Zarzis fishermen told Meshkal that a Djerban fisherman had called the coast guard to check on what he had found. Al-Warimi’s family later confirmed that the backpack belonged to her. The next day, October 5, al-Warimi’s corpse was found in Aghir, on the east coast of Djerba, in a decomposed state, confirming to most that the boat had indeed sunk.
“It was Malek. She was recognized by the bracelet on her hand. She came back to expose them [the authorities]. If it wasn’t for the bracelet, we would’ve never known what happened to the boat, and we’d probably never know the dirty games officials in Zarzis have been playing. We’d still until now be living for the hope of getting our kids back from Libya,” a local woman in Zarzis told Meshkal on October 15 during a protest over the official response.
The day Malek’s body was found on October 5, parents of the missing migrants and other locals gathered in front of the regional hospital of Zarzis seeking more news about the rest of the migrants in case some other bodies had been admitted to the morgue. The news of Malek’s body prompted fisherman Bachir Zaoui to share a photo of a child’s corpse that he had taken when fishermen went on their search and found two bodies on September 26, ten days earlier. At that point, locals say family members recognized Yassin Abdelkrim, Rhayem Ben Aouada’s cousin, as the photographed corpse. Meanwhile, another body that had been found on the Djerban shore on October 2 was not recognized as Mouna Ben Aouada until October 6, when her other sibling Raoudha Ben Aouada saw a video of Mouna’s corpse that had been taken by someone who found her.
As locals started to identify their relatives by the clothes or other identifying features among the bodies brought into the port or found on shore, tensions started to increase.
The local Fisherman Association and all of its members had previously begun a volunteer search mission on Monday, September 26, independently from the coast guards who they said had initially refused to launch a rescue mission. That Monday, the more than 10 fishing boats on the search had initially found two bodies, including that of Yassin Abdelkrim who Bachir Zaoui photographed at the time. But locals and fishermen said they had not connected those two bodies to the boat that had left on September 21 partly because of the made-up story about relatives being in Libya.
“We forgot about the two bodies that were found four days after the departure of the boat. We were blinded by the hope that our people were still alive,” Ben Aouada told Meshkal during a protest on October 15.
BODIES BURIED IN SECRET
With the discovery of the corpses confirming the worst, the false story that the migrants were alive but hostage in Libya fell apart. On October 6, some locals had heard of newly-buried graves in the Gardens of Africa cemetery, built in June 2021 by Algerian artist Rachid Quraishi to give dignity to the many unidentified migrants–many from other African countries–who have died trying to cross to Europe by sea. Family members and friends of the migrants went there on the suspicion that authorities had already found and buried their loved ones without seeking to identify them or notify families. So locals said they opened the graves to check the identities and found that three of the recently buried were indeed migrants: 27-year-old Seifeddine Belhiba and two minors, Yassin Abdelkrim and Aymen Warimi.
“A friend of mine proposed this possibility so we decided to check the cemetery. We found graves with new dates of September 27 and October 2 that had been unannounced. Once the graves were opened, we found…the migrants buried with their clothes, and that’s how we recognized them. Yassin was one of them,” Rhayem Ben Aouada told Meshkal, referring to his little cousin.
“Our children were already found and buried as unknowns in the Gardens of Africa [cemetery], without consulting the public prosecutor and their families. One of the fishermen who found the first two bodies took a photo of one of the bodies and never shared it. He never knew that he possessed the clue to the mystery,” said Ben Aouada. “We never speculated about the possibility of finding our kids already buried as strangers in their own countries and a few miles away from their homes without having the authorities informing us or bothering to DNA test the bodies…One could never imagine such an atrocity.”
In a statement to Nawaat journalist Najla Ben Salah published on October 14, the district commissioner [moatamad/délégué] for Zarzis, Ezzedine Khelifi, admitted that the public prosecutor had signed burial permits for four bodies in the “Foreigners Cemetery” (different from the Gardens of Arica cemetery) without DNA-testing or trying to identify the dead “because the families of the victims believed that their children were still alive. The families had evidence of the possibility their children were in Libya. That’s why the DNA tests did not seem necessary.”
LITTLE HELP FROM AUTHORITIES
Chamseddine Bourasin, president of the Zarzis Fisherman Association and a boat captain who has been saving shipwrecked migrants for years, told Meshkal that authorities eventually contributed support to finding bodies after a lot of pressure from locals, but only at what he estimated was about “20 percent” of their effort and resources.
“Both the governor and the district commissioner [moatamad/délégué] refused to provide us with information to base our search on, which led us…to talking about [holding] a general strike in Zarzis,” in protest at the official response, Bourasin said. The regional branch of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) in Zarzis did later hold a general strike in the city on Tuesday, October 18, in coordination with the Fisherman Association, the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing (UTAP), the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the main national chamber of commerce/employers’ union in protest.
After fishermen found two bodies on the 26th, they kept the searches going every day but didn’t find any more bodies until two weeks later, when they found six bodies on October 10.
“We had five search missions at sea and three on land. Not having the national coast guard supporting our search missions makes us doubt their commitment. In 20 days of searching, they failed to find a single body, or so they made us think. Meanwhile in a single day, we, with our humble materials, managed to find six bodies… Usually when a boat sinks, we find all the bodies within 15 days. We’ve been searching for a month and still have ten missing bodies,” he told Meshkal in the evening on Monday, October 17th at the Zarzis port after coming back from a whole day of searching that had started at 7:00 that morning.
“We won’t accept any compensation for looking for our kids. We asked for support to cover fuel costs. We are volunteering for the sake of our town and families of the missing,” Mejid Amor, another fishermen, told Meshkal.
That Monday, fisherman found a backpack at sea, but they were unsure whether this backpack belonged to those on the ship. On October 16, the coast guard brought the corpse of one of the migrants–27-year-old Amine Mcharek–to the morgue at the Zarzis regional hospital. They had found the corpse 15 miles away from Zarzis, said local activist Ali Kniss, speaking beside a crowd of family members, activists and journalists from Meshkal gathered at the morgue that day. Meshkal witnessed Mcharek’s body being transferred from the morgue to a truck, bound for the Medenine hospital for autopsy. Unlike the other bodies that were decomposed due to sea damage, Mcharek’s body was largely intact and his family were able to recognize him without having to conduct a DNA test, raising suspicions about the location of where the body was found.
“Mcharek’s corpse might not have actually been found, but put there. Or it might have been pushed by the waves. I’m not accusing anyone. How can the body be found randomly and just 15 miles away when we spent the previous five days scouting the sea for hours? Everything is pushing us to question…” fisherman Bourasin told Meshkal.
DYING WITHOUT A EUROPEAN VISA
The death of 26-year-old Mouna Ben Aouada, who drowned with her eight-month-old baby Sajda Nasr, sheds light on the crisis of family reunification visas for families of Tunisian diaspora from Zarzis living in Italy and other European countries.
Mouna’s brother Rhayem told Meshkal that his sister failed to obtain a visa for family reunification, even though her husband, Karim Nasr, has been living and working in Italy for years. After multiple visa rejections despite having the means to travel, Mouna’s relatives said her last hope to reunite with her husband was to try and migrate informally.
“My sister applied for a visa multiple times. She applied once she got married, applied again when she got pregnant, and again when she gave birth. But she was rejected every time,” Raoudha, Mouna’s sister, told Meshkal during a protest over the official response to the boat sinking on October 15.
Even though Mouna’s body was found on October 2nd and identified on the 6th, it was only buried on the 14th–a delay that sparked speculation and various conspiracy theories among locals who have grown to distrust officials. Mouna’s accompanying baby has still not been found, but locals claim that authorities found a body that was the right size for a baby but disposed of it claiming it was a sea animal.
The recent shipwreck is far from the first tragedy of its kind. Less than a month before the Zarzis shipwreck, another ship carrying migrants sank off the coast of Mahdia, with at least eight passengers dying. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) is working to track some of the numbers, and from January to October 2022 they recorded over 500 people who died off Tunisian coasts trying to migrate to Italy. During the same period, they found that more than 16,000 people made the crossing successfully, while many more–nearly 30,000–were prevented from doing so by coast guard units that work to prevent the crossings. Despite the coast guard’s role in preventing ships from reaching European shores by intercepting them, the number of migrants has still been increasing in recent years, according to FTDES.
While the Covid-19 crisis and deteriorating economic conditions have been behind much of the migration, in Zarzis those who already migrated and bring back money offer an example of the opportunities that moving to Europe can provide, blogger Gantri said
“The Zarzis Akkara tribe is mostly living abroad because of informal migration. Kids in Zarzis grew up seeing extravagance…because of the informal migrants who left years ago and come back with so much money and fancy cars, which makes it a goal for youngsters to head to informal migration as one way of generating money,” Gantri said. “People find it easier to do illegal migration than to actually find opportunities that can afford a decent living for them in Tunisia.”
On October 17, nearly a month after the boat’s sinking and amid increasing confrontations between his officials and locals in Zarzis, President Kais Saied addressed the issue. In several statements posted to the Presidency’s Facebook page in meetings with his Prime Minister, Interior Minister, and Justice minister, he called for a “deep investigation” regarding the boat’s sinking, pointing the finger at “human traffickers”. Saied also “stressed, once again, that each party needs to bear its responsibilities,” suggesting that there would be consequences for those who “did not perform their duties,” while adding that prosecutors would ensure that “no one will escape punishment”.
On October 21, as part of the official investigation, the first court hearing reportedly began in Medenine, where a number of families and officials gave testimonies. The first of these sessions included the families of seven of the victims whose corpses have already been found and identified, including four whose bodies were exhumed from the Gardens of Africa cemetery.
On October 22, the investigative judge reportedly ordered the closure of the Gardens of Africa cemetery in Zarzis and ordered 28 graves to be opened and for the corpses to undergo DNA tests. However by October 27, 2022, the results of the DNA tests had not come up as positive matches with family members of the migrants lost at sea.
Despite the ongoing investigation, protests have continued in November.
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