Migrant Lives

For A Tunisian City, The Mediterranean Offers Hope And Death

In the southern city of El Hamma, young Tunisians attempt to emigrate all the time for a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. One recent tragedy left dozens dead.

In El Hamma, Tunisia
In El Hamma, Tunisia
Niccolò Zancan

EL HAMMA — Departing in mass from this small southern city, 74 young, unemployed Tunisians left in search of a brighter future in Europe. On June 3, 44 of them died in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside his house in El Hamma, Ben Farah Adouni confirms that his son Tarek died that day. "They should've at least organized a state funeral. But for the Tunisian government, our sons are worthless whether they're dead or alive."

The families of the 44 victims blame the government just as much as the smugglers whom they believe tricked their children with false promises of a better life in Europe. "My son should've stayed here breaking stones," says Kamel Adouni, the father of Ammar, another one of the deceased. "Those criminals came here promising them heaven, and the government did nothing."

Families like the Adounis liken the smugglers to a well-oiled business, with operatives scouring the city's streets and cafes to collect cash from possible ‘customers' every day. The situation in El Hamma remains bleak: a broken motorcycle rusts outside while local women sit silently on the floor, excluded from the conversation.

Tarek used to share a room on the house's first floor with his two brothers, Mohammad and Kaissar. As an informal memorial to Tarek, they've laid out his usual outfit on his bed: a pair of jeans cut-off at the knees, a gray t-shirt and an FC Barcelona hat. Unlike many of the other victims, his is one of the thirteen bodies that has been returned to its family in El Hamma.

"Tarek used to help me sell used clothes in the market," says his father. "I could give him at most 15 dinars (5 euros) a day. He shouldn't have left, but I understand why he did."

The death toll from the capsizing on June 3rd continues to rise, now standing at 80 victims. Everywhere you go in El Hamma, everyone you meet is either a friend or relative of a victim, or a survivor of the shipwreck themselves. Almost 200 people crowded into a raft only seven meters long, which broke in half just two hours into the journey. The list of victims is expected to grow longer.

The drive to El Hamma from the airport in Tunis, the capital, takes five hours on a southbound highway flanking the coast and the barren countryside. As you approach the city of Gabès, passing by the grain silos and cement factories, you veer 40 kilometers west towards the Algerian border to reach El Hamma.

Ammar should've stayed.

Despite being home to 52,000 people, it's hard to see the town sprawling beyond the city gates. Plastic seats and broken motorbikes litter the streets, and the city is empty except for a brick factory and the fading Islamic hammam (bath house) that gave the town its name. There is no economy to speak of, except for the sale of contraband gasoline from Libya and palm sap extracted from the many palm trees.

"It doesn't matter, my son Ammar should've stayed here," says Kamel Adouni. "Even if he had to break stones, at least he'd still be alive."

Many of the young men, like Tarek and Ammar, left El Hamma against their parents' wishes. "He called me from the island of Kerkennah, and I ordered him not to do it and he seemed convinced," says Kamel. "If I had known he was lying to me, I would've gone to pull him from that boat with my bare hands."

At the Al-Quds cafe, the patrons sit separated by age and gender as they drink coffee and orange juice while watching Ramadan dramas on television. Two survivors of the June 3rd shipwreck are seated at one of the tables.

Leaving El Hamma — Photo: phono.graphy2 via Instagram

Wael Ferjani, 22, is one of them. He clung onto an empty jerrycan for dear life, floating at sea for four hours. "I will return to the sea, I'll try again," he says. "The boat was too small and it split in half. We only managed to survive by finding something to float on or by staying on the wreck. The captain was saved by a raft, we watched him flee while we shouted for help."

The other survivor is Mahfoudh Lassoid, 32. "The smuggler had already brought 60 people across to Italy safely, so we thought we could do the same," he says. "He sent one of his men here, stopping in all the cafes to collect cash and cell phones from people who wanted to leave."

Lassoid has bulging eyes and speaks in a feverish pitch, repeatedly apologizing for his distress. "I can't eat or sleep anymore, I'm sorry," he says. "You can't live anymore when you've seen so many people die."

It's one in the morning now, and the waiters bring more coffee and orange juice for the hundred or so people who have gathered around to listen to his story. "When we got the go-ahead from the smugglers, we traveled to the port of Sfax on state-owned buses, a few at a time so as to not attract attention," he says. "At night they boarded us onto fishing boats, pressing us together near the engine. After an hour we reached Kerkennah, where they kept us in a house for two weeks."

As he continues to recount his experience, Lassoid becomes apologetic again. "All of us were in there, those who survived and those who didn't. Understood? Sorry, I'm really sorry," he says. "Two hundred people hidden in one house. A shirt cost ten euros and water cost three times as much, but the smugglers offered us everything including drugs."

The would-be migrants were kept in the house as a way for the smugglers to extract more money from them. "You can't travel with money because if you get stopped by the police, they'll discover your plans and arrest you," he says. "After Kerkennah we changed houses, and my father used a money transfer service to wire the 1,200 euros I'd left him to pay for the journey."

Both isolated from the world and right in the eye of its storm.

The June 3rd disaster led to the dismissal of Tunisia's interior minister, Lotfi Brahem, and the police chief in Sfax, who was suspected of shielding corrupt colleagues. None of the traffickers have been arrested yet.

El Hamma is both isolated from the world and right in the eye of its storm. The Arab Spring started not far from here, in the Tunisian hinterland still suffering from years of unemployment and neglect. This part of Tunisia offers no industrial jobs save for the phosphate mines of Gafsa, where underpaid miners have organized yet another strike for better pay as inflation continues to rise. The price of a pack of Royale cigarettes has tripled, as has the number of employees in a mine that is facing a collapse in production.

Companies like the Gafsa mine hand out worthless jobs to keep the anger of young Tunisians at bay — but not even those positions are available in El Hamma. Here, the only people offering the hope of a better future are traffickers and terrorists.

"I too will return to the sea," says Lassoid. "I'll do it for Julie, a German woman I fell in love with in Djerba. I'll do it for myself, because I can't take it anymore in this place where the only thing we have is nothing."

Silence fills the air at two in the morning, pierced only by the sound of a distant prayer and the cries of a woman in a house nearby, mourning the loss of her son in the shipwreck. Mahfoudh ends his story with a question: "Would you stay here?"

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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