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Searching For The "Disappeared" Of Tunisia's Revolution

Thousands of young Tunisians who tried to emigrate to Europe after the Arab Spring have disappeared. Their families are desperate to know what happened to them.

Off the coast of Lampedusa
Off the coast of Lampedusa
Isabelle Mandraud

TUNIS – A crowd awaits in the corridor of the Tunisian Human Rights League, virtually all holding photos and crumpled pieces of paper.

They are being assisted by the Tunisian Forum for the Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), an NGO created in May 2011 – right after the Tunisian revolution – to help migrants, refugees and the destitute.

The people gathered in this hallway are a desperate group. For two years now, they have been searching for their sons, sisters or nephews who disappeared while attempting to cross into Europe illegally after the fall of the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – vanished, somewhere between Tunisia and the coastline of Sicily.

The fate of these forgotten refugees will be at the center of the World Social Forum, the bi-annual meeting of the alter-globalization movement – held this week for the first time in an Arab country, Tunisia.

In April 2011, Silvio Berlusconi, who was president of the Italian council at the time, came to Tunisia to decry what he called a “human tsunami.” In just a few months, at least 30,000 – maybe more – young Tunisians tried the perilous journey by boat. Unprecedented numbers. Of the 64,261 people who tried to cross the Strait of Sicily in 2011, 27,864 were of Tunisian origin according to the European border management agency Frontex.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated in January 2012 that 1,500 passengers disappeared while making the journey, 1,000 of whom were Tunisians according to FTDES. This is three times the number direct casualties from the Tunisian revolution.

“In 2011, since there was no police, people- smugglers were offering their services in broad daylight, as if they were selling tickets for a concert,” says Aberrahmane Hedhili, president of DTDES and secretary general of the Tunisian Human Rights League. The organization has a file on 500 of these “lost at sea” refugees who neither Italy nor Tunisia wants to take responsibility for. But without a body, the families won’t believe they are dead.

Ramzi Ben Abdelkahder Rhimi was 21 and unemployed. He left his family’s house in Ben Arous, near Tunis on March 29to embark at the port of Sidi Mansour. “I didn’t know that he was planning to leave, he just said, ‘I’m going to the beach,’” recalls his father. Ramzi’s mother is sitting in the corner. She wears a light veil to hide her face and hands – a reminder of the immolation she attempted in despair. “Those who were with Ramzi saw him board a bus when he arrived,” says the father. But since then, they have not gotten any news of their son.

Leaving from Rades, a suburb in the south of Tunis, Mohamed Ali Hachem, 19, embarked on the same boat as Ramzi on March 29. His mother, Samah Lassoued says: “They were 64 on that boat. I knew that Mohamed wanted to leave, because I am by myself, divorced and he wanted to help me. On that day, at 11:15 p.m., he called me to tell me ‘Mom, we left an hour ago, call me tomorrow at 1 p.m.’ Since then, nothing.” Her voice breaks. “I have proof that these 64 people arrived in Lampedusa,” she says, waving a couple of photos. “TV5 was there and filmed everything. I recognized my son.” On the photos, she points to the outline of a young man, his face hidden by a hoodie, wearing jeans and a black jacket. “These are his clothes, I’m sure of it.” She hasn’t heard from Mohamed since.

Drowning, kidnapping, organized crime?

There were about 5,600 people in the first wave of harragas, the word used in Maghreb to describe boat people. But as weeks went by, the dictatorship started unraveling and border surveillance was visibly loosened. The flow of departures intensified, with people coming from all over the country to attempt the journey to Europe. The rumor according to which the boat people were all prisoners who had escaped from prison was short-lived.

According to a study by the FTDES, out of a sample of 198 missing people, 55% were from Tunis and its impoverished suburbs. “Crappy neighborhoods,” as the NGO describes them. Most of those were under 30 years old (76%), sometimes even minors – 11% were between the ages of 15 and 19.

The Errawafi family is from western Kram, one of the poorest suburbs of Tunis. “My son Mohamed was 18, he left on March 14, 2011. He had been shot in the thigh in January, during a protest. He kept on saying: ‘If Ben Ali comes back he will kill us all,’ but I did not know that he wanted to leave. He didn’t ask me for a cent,” says his father, Samir. He does not believe that his son drowned – he says he recognized Mohamed on a broadcast on the Euronews TV channel. At the time, many media were in Lampedusa, Sicily, to report on the influx of boat people. For the families who saw the news reports, the images were proof that many refugees had indeed reached Italy. Mohamed’s mother has since then gone to Italy to try and find her son. On the same boat as her son, was a friend of Mohamed – who is also missing.

What happened to them? The families have gone through many different scenarios. The FTDES admits that drowning is the most likely scenario, but says other possibilities have been investigated: kidnapping, organized crime, imprisonment, escape, etc., none of which have yielded any answers. The FTDES is keeping a list of missing persons, with names and a photocopy of their ID.

Public inquiries have been launched in Italy and Tunisia, but no results have been passed on to the families. “I called my brother on his cell phone for two weeks, I either got the answering machine or a message in Italian,” says Bader Medfai, who is looking for his brother Bassem, 24. Bassem left in 2011 with 1800 dinars ($1156) in his pocket – 1500 dinars ($963) of which were for the people smugglers. “In our last phone conversation, he said the boat was overloaded and that they needed to be rescued, but that they could see the lights from the shore.” And then, silence. “I was supposed to leave on another boat because I had lost my job as a hairdresser,” says Medfai.

His brother’s fate does not dissuade him from attempting the trip sometime in the future. “We know that immigrants aren’t treated very well in Europe, but it’s worse here. Right now, I can’t leave because of my mother but some day, yes, I will leave, inch’ Allah (God willing),” he says.

Little by little the flow of Tunisian migrants has considerably reduced, border patrols have intensified, and the horrifying tales of those who made it back have discouraged many.

Others have taken over – after the Tunisians, Libyans started to attempt the journey to Europe. As soon as the revolt against Gaddafi started, 23,000 Libyan arrivals were registered in Lampedusa. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, 45,000 asylum requests were made in Italy, a statistic that doesn’t take the missing into account.

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