The ‘Heroes’ of Zarzis: Documentary Follows Fishermen Saving Lives in Mediterranean

Chamseddine Marzoug, a volunteer for the Red Crescent in Zarzis, speaks at the Maison du Droit et des Migrations in Tunis, September 26, 2019. In the background is a photo of the first “Cemetery of Unknown” Marzoug built in Zarzis for migrants lost at sea. Photo by Meshkal news team.

On the shores of the Mediterranean near the city of Zarzis in the south of Tunisia, Chamseddine Marzoug walks near a makeshift graveyard he built in the sand. In the graves are the corpses of people he has never met, people who came from other parts of the African continent and were trying to reach Europe.

“Who wore this shoe? A boy or a girl?” Marzoug asks, holding up a small shoe he finds on the coast. He says he has buried more than 400 people over the last 12 years, including more children than he likes to remember.

Marzoug said this to the camera of documentary filmmaker Giulia Bertoluzzi in her 2018 documentary film, Strange Fish.  The film follows the fishermen in Zarzis who, for more than a decade, have been saving the lives of shipwrecked migrants or just giving them dignity in death despite legal, physical, financial, and emotional obstacles.

Strange Fish was screened in Tunis on Thursday, September 26, at the Maison du Droit et Migrations (“House of Law and Migration”). The Maison is a center maintained since 2012 by Terre d’Asile Tunisie, a local branch of the French association France Terre D’Asile, with the help of European Union funding and the Swiss state. At the screening, Marzoug was there in person to present and comment on the film.

Today, Marzoug is no longer fishing, but he still helps migrants who are rescued and brought back to Tunisian shores as a volunteer for the Red Crescent. He spends much of his time maintaining and upgrading two graveyards he built for the corpses found on shore and at sea.

“It’s difficult to see cadavers,” Marzoug told the audience of about 30 after the screening, describing briefly the kinds of mutilation and decomposition of corpses fishermen encounter while fishing.

“Before they were badly buried,” Marzoug explains, noting that he and other volunteers treat the corpses in a way that minimizes the physical damage sustained at sea. “Now we give dignity…because these people aren’t numbers; they are humans.”

Marzoug also maintains a museum near the newer of the two graveyards where the clothes of deceased migrants are hung with dates so that if any family members visit looking for relatives they might be able to identify them. He also takes DNA samples to help with identification. He says so far he has only received four groups looking for deceased relatives, including three from Syria in 2014 and one from Sudan more recently.

The fishermen of Zarzis began to find bodies of migrants at sea in the early 2000s, long before international rescue teams began responding to the crisis in recent years.

“From 2002 to 2011 we were alone. It was only fishermen [saving shipwrecked migrants]. There were no NGOs,” one fisherman at a café in Zarzis says as Bertoluzzi’s camera records.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “aiding those in peril at sea is one of the oldest maritime obligations,” one that has been codified more recently in several international treaties, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR).

Tunisian and Italian coast guard officials are not always responsive to calls for rescue, according to Tunisian fishermen, particularly in international waters. So they have taken up the task themselves.

“We would prefer the EU would play its role,” one fisherman says. “We were saving in 2006, 2007, 2008 when there were no European boats.”

Some Tunisian fishermen have even been jailed by Italian authorities for their work saving migrants. Last fall, Italian authorities jailed six Tunisian fishermen, alleging they had aided illegal immigration when they towed shipwrecked migrants to Italian shores. One of the six included the captain of the fishing ship, Chamseddine Bourrasine.

“In Zarzis, Bouarrasine and his crew are known as anonymous heroes,” filmmaker Bertoluzzi told the Guardian in an interview published on September 5, 2018.

“I think about [migrants’] lives, not about the money I’m going to lose,” one fisherman says in Bertoluzzi’s film, referring to the fact that they have to abandon their work to respond to rescue calls. “We are fishermen. We don’t work with [the Tunisian political parties] Nidaa, Nahdha, or Jabha. We work only with the sea.”

While many of the migrants who have crossed or attempted to cross to Europe by sea are from other parts of Africa, some are Tunisians, including family members of Zarzis fishermen. Fishermen say they’ve faced increasing economic challenges, as their catches have gotten smaller and competition has grown from larger industrial fishing groups. Fish stocks have also been depleted due to the proliferation of an invasive species of blue crab in the last few years. They say a younger generation have sought to emigrate to find economic opportunities in Europe.

It’s not just a financial price that fishermen pay when they save migrants at sea instead of fishing. There is also a high emotional burden of seeing so much death and suffering up close.

“We never imagined we’d see such horrors,” one fisherman says in Strange Fish, after recounting a particularly gruesome scene of injuries migrants had sustained.

Despite the economic and emotional toll, Zarzis fishermen are not merely reactive, responding to calls for help as they are received. The fisherman have also taken political action to try and fight the racism they see as the root cause of the deaths in the Mediterranean.

In August, 2017, fishermen from Zarzis protested to prevent the anti-immigrant ship, C-Star, from docking for refuelling. The event made international headlines, and Bertoluzzi’s camera was there to document the protest organizing and the painting of placards and banners, including one that read “NO to racists.”

“It’s up to us to stop racism and fascism,” one fisherman is filmed saying, speaking to a journalist calling during the protest.

When the fishermen in Zarzis succeeded in preventing C-Star from docking, they said they called their friends in other ports in Tunisia to get them to also mobilize and prevent the ship from docking elsewhere.

“The media has done its job. Everyone is aware,” of the death toll in the Mediterranean, Marzoug noted.

According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), more than 15,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean between 2013 and 2019. As of October 1, 2019, IOM have confirmed 994 fatalities in the Mediterranean this year alone.

“But who reacts?” Marzoug asks. “To be human is to react.”

In April 2018, Marzoug made a speech to European Parliament in Strasbourg to call on European Union countries to do more.

One audience member at the film screening in Tunis on Thursday asked Marzoug what his message at the European Parliament had been.

“I was a bit aggressive, in a positive way. Because it’s not good to block the borders,” Marzoug responded. “Rather than protect these borders, we need to protect humans and humanity… I am against the immigration laws that killed these people.”