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Migrant Lives

Migrants' Many Shades Of Death Along The Tunisian Coast

In the south of Tunisia, near the Libyan border, an ancient dump serves as a cemetery for immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean illegally. But the living remain undeterred.

Hoping for a better life in Europe
Hoping for a better life in Europe
Maryline Dumas

ZARZIS — "May God forgive them," murmurs Chamseddine Marzoug. Both corpses, inside mortuary body bags, are covered over with sand with a backhoe. Through the surrounding trash that has accumulated, Marzoug looks some signpost to mark the piece of land. He says he would want something better than a broken piece of black pipe to mark his own grave. The two buried men underwent an autopsy, which is quite rare — maybe one day they will once again be given their names …

The former Zarzis dump serves as a cemetery for migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. In the 2000s, the bodies of migrants were welcomed in a Muslim cemetery in the southern Tunisian town near the Libyan border. This is still the case for corpses found a bit further south towards Ben Guerdan, in the cemetery of El Ketf. "But in Zarzis, people said it was not good to bury strangers with Muslims," said Marzoug. "There are only 5 to 7 places left in this cemetery where the conditions are not respectful for the dead."

Indeed most funerals in Zarzis are held in neighborhood cemeteries reserved for families. "Some were afraid of running out of space," says Valentina Zagaria, a PhD student in anthropology at the London School of Economics currently studying migration patterns in southern Tunisia.

The town hall wound up providing the land, about 10 kilometers outside of Zarzis. Since the beginning of the year, the bodies of 24 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have been added to this improvised cemetery. Between mid-May and mid-June, Marzoug counted 22, more than what was counted the entire year of 2016. The unemployed man who has been organizing these funerals for more than ten years, thinks only of that. He spends his days watching the weather and keeping up-to-date on shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. This Tuesday, he worried about the strong winds and a boat that was lost with 400 people on board.

In Zarzis — Photo: Chesdovi

Marzoug is a volunteer for the Red Crescent and has been loaned a commercial truck by the president of the humanitarian organization for the region. He drives with the back doors open. The two-hour journey with the corpses, between the forensic department of Gabes and Zarzis, leaves an unbearable stench. These two most recent victims were found eight days earlier with two other bodies. They were entitled to an autopsy because of their appearance, which left Tunisians wondering. There had been local fishermen missing for some time, but the examination proved negative and from there, Marzoug took charge.

"They died at least two months ago. They are Africans," the 50-year-old said.

For Zagaria, it's always useful to record the dates the bodies are discovered, but "the town hall does not. Marzoug already has a lot of work, and he's only a volunteer. Maritime guards and hospitals have a trace, but is this information centralized?" After two years on the job, the researcher still does not know.

The biggest mistake of my life.

Another destiny, another drama. Mamadou Kourbaï found refuge at the Red Crescent center in Medenine, 60 kilometers west of Zarzis. Thanks to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the Malian is preparing to leave for Conakry, Guinea, where extended family members wait to welcome him. He is looking forward to starting fresh, far from the Mediterranean, which last December took the lives of his wife and three children, aged 3 to 9, who drowned when the boat they'd taken to reach Europe sank off the coast. Kourbaï was saved by the Libyan Coast Guard but now finds himself imprisoned in Zawya, 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.

"There was not enough to eat, we drank salt water, we slept on the floor," he said. "They raped women in front of us. They beat people for anything. I buried four people beaten to death, two Ivorians, one Congolese and one Nigerian."

Kourbaï was finally released, and managed to reach the Tunisian border and found refuge in Medenine. When he left his country several months ago, Kourbaï hoped for a better life in Europe. "Leaving," he says. "was the biggest mistake of my life."

This is a sentence that Kourbaï"s friend, Houssein Bahri, hears often, but chooses to ignore. The 26-year-old looks for work hoping to save the 600 to 800 euros needed to get to Libya to make the crossing to Europe. "I can't go back empty like that," the Guinea native explains. Despite what some of his friends have experienced, he also knows "that many arrive in Italy."

Once in Europe, Bahri says his "dream is Great Britain. I'd like to raise goats there." To explain to him that this is not the most profitable sector of activity, that Europe is experiencing an economic crisis, that life is much more expensive there is beside the point. "We cannot compare Africa to Europe. Whatever you say, we have nothing at home. In Europe," the young man insists, "I will always find a little more than nothing."

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