A view of the Sangho district of Zarzis.

“We kept getting all these dead bodies and had no idea of what to do with them.” (Chams-eddine Marzoyg)

Defeat of a rebel

 

The waiting room of Tunis’ Ministry of Home Affairs is packed with men. They are speaking loudly, all at the same time. Standing there with the kind of cultural disorientation tourists typically show, I cannot help thinking it is like being at the Medina market. I do not understand a single word of what they are saying, but I sense a slight discomfort in their tones and looks. Not only am I the only woman in the room, but also undoubtedly Western.

 

“Where are you from?”, Hassun suddenly asks me, interrupting the confused flow of Arabic words in the room. He is sitting behind a group of men, waiting for his passport to be checked and stamped by local authorities because he was expelled from Europe for being an undocumented immigrant last week. A man in his forties, his face showing the signs of a difficult past, but with a kind and young look, Hassun was born in the city of Kasserine at the border with Algeria where the protests which led to the spark of the Arab Spring first began. He defines himself “an anarchist rebel”, disappointed at all forms of governmental ruling and firmly convinced that “real democracy is a utopia”.

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Hassun Dhibi Hasnaoui, poses for a photograph in the garden of his nephew's house in the district of Intilaka, Tunis, the evening before returning to his hometown, Kasserine. Hassun is in Tunis to regularize his return, having recently been repatriated from Belgium.

 

One of the squares in central Zarzis.

17-year-old Bassur Gasama, immigrant from Senegal, in his kitchen while making dinner. Bassur arrived in Zarzis in April 2015, rescued at sea by local fishermen.  He now lives in a house provided for by the humanitarian organization Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), together with four other

immigrants.

“They simply asked me where I was from and what I wanted to do in their country. I told them the truth: I was fleeing the war in Libya. They were very kind.” (Usman Bangura)

Rescued

 

It is already 9 pm when I get to the apartment which Ivorian Adama shares with three other immigrants. He was rescued by Tunisian fishermen in 2011 near the Southern town of Zarzis, and has been living there since, assisted by the staff of the humanitarian organization Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC).

 

“Sometimes, when I close my eyes in the dark, panic overwhelms me. I feel afraid as if I were still in that farm in Libya, as if I were still living in conflict. [Libya] is pure hell. The fear of being killed makes it difficult to sleep, and you thank God when you wake up still alive”, Adama tells me in the house corridor. As I listen to him, I feel he is battling between the discomfort of having to recall a painful past and the need to share his personal tragedy.

 

He survived two traumatic journeys: The first took him from Cote d’Ivoire- which he fled because of civil war- to Nigeria, and finally to Tripoli in 2011; the second saw him smuggled from the Libyan town of Sabha on a dinghy carrying 81 other people from Africa and Bangladesh and directed to Italy. He fled his country in search of a safer life, thinking he could find it in Libya, still relatively rich compared to other African countries. However, as the conflict started he was also forced to flee Libya.

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Adama Cisse, migrant from Cote d’Ivoire, in his bedroom in Zarzis. Adama arrived in Zarzis in 2011, rescued at sea by local fishermen together with 98 other migrants. He now lives in a house provided for by the humanitarian organization Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) together with four other immigrants.

Dousu Cheick Isla, migrant from Burkina Faso, in his house in Zarzis. Dousu arrived in March 2015, after being rescued at sea by the humanitarian organization Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC). The TRC provided for his accommodation, which he shares with four other immigrants.

Early afternoon view of the Choucha camp in Ben Guerdane. The pictured tent is the only space within the camp where immigrants have access to electricity.

“My dream is still to go to Europe, maybe Italy or Germany, and I will not stop trying. But I will only travel on good boats in the future, no more dinghies.” (Bassur Gasama)

The ghosts of Choucha

 

I arrive at the camp after a one-hour drive from Zarzis. It’s a rainy day and the humidity is uncomfortable. For the first time since I arrived in Tunisia to conduct research on people smuggling I feel at danger. There is no evident reason why I should feel this way. No one has being acting unusually in the last week, my local guides are very smart and have never made me feel uncomfortable about the work, contrarily to what many people had warned me against I was never bothered for being a Western woman. Yet, something I cannot fully identify makes the atmosphere oppressive today.

 

I had underestimated how listening to people’s sufferance can affect our ability to think rationally. I am about to listen to a group of men who has gone through a great deal of traumatic experiences. I am supposed to “collect their stories” and use them as “data” for my doctorate, almost as a highly technological machine would do, and then turn these human stories, voices, looks, bodies, fears into “useful results”. Although no researcher can be absolutely detached during their observation of other human beings, data collection is something that I am normally able to do without major psychological repercussions. But I know it will not be the case today.

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Ambrose, spiritual guide for many of the migrants still living in the Choucha camp. The tent was turned into a church by Ambrose and other immigrants.

Ibrahim Isaac, immigrant from South Sudan,in his tent in Choucha. Escaped from South Sudan, Ibrahim is technically entitled to the status of refugee in Tunisia according to international humanitarian law. However, UNHCR has been turning his application down since 2011.

Two immigrants of the Choucha camp stand by the road which brings to the border with Libya. This road is the main source of food, water and other basic resources which immigrants beg from passing drivers every day.

“Why does everyone like the future so much but does nothing to help now?” (Mouhamed Trabilsi)

I shall remember you when you're gone

 

The sun is hot today and I can hear the voices of women shopping at the local market in Zarzis from the hotel room. There is something familiar in the way their voices sound, a somewhat acute and interrupted rhythm that reminds me of the women back home in Sicily. As I pull the curtains aside to peer out the window and watch them, my phone rings. “Bonjour Eileen, ça va?”. It’s a call from Mouhamed, I have an appointment with him later today to talk about his activity within the TRC (Tunisian Red Crescent), a national humanitarian organization that has since 2011 provided considerable support to migrants coming to Tunisia.

 

“Nothing is truly impossible if you work to make it happen”, he tells me during our meeting. He is a tall man, tireless and extremely well organized, who divides his time between the mechanic’s workshop he runs in the morning and the job at the TRC in the afternoon.

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Sidu from Senegal in the backyard of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) in Zarzis. Sidu migrated by land from Libya to Tunisia in 2011, after being kept in captivity and tortured for two months by smugglers. After crossing the Southern border, he was assisted by sta

Mouhamed Trabilsi in his office at the bureau of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) in Zarzis. He is advocating for the importance of giving a dignified burial to dead migrants in Tunisia.

 

One of the two oil refineries in Zarzis, in the commercial harbour of the city.

 

“We kept getting all these dead bodies and had no idea of what to do with them.” (Chams-eddine Marzoyg)

A fisherman is resting at sunset outside one of the buildings in the fishing harbour of Zarzis.

The sea has two faces

 

Chams-edinne Bourassine has always been a fisherman in Zarzis, as his father and grandfather before him. He is President of the Zarzis Fishermen Association, created to support local fishing activities and represent fishermen.

 

He loves his country and is respected by other fishermen for being “a trustworthy and good colleague and friend”. He loves his job, “the way the sea smells at dawn” when boats come back from a night of fishing. He believes in his city’s potential to contribute to making Tunisia an increasingly better country. He has a balanced routine made of work, time with his family, and time with his friends. And, over the past five years, he lost count of the number of corpses floating in the same waters he has sailed all his life.

 

“They are people trying to migrate from Libya to Europe on boats which simply cannot make that journey. I have seen so many by now that I feel a different person. My sea has changed”.

 

Quite unexpectedly, fishermen have become a central element of rescue activities at sea. So central indeed that their cooperation with humanitarian organizations and the local Coast Guard to save migrants has become an important item in their daily agenda.

 

Fishers are the only ones in Tunisia sailing as far as the Libyan tract of water, where Tunisian maritime vessels cannot operate, being therefore the first contact for migrants in danger.

 

Their activity has been affected dramatically by migrant smuggling, both psychologically and financially. Profits for instance have suffered considerably as fishing became difficult and dangerous due to the high volume of corpses in the water.

 

The humanitarian organization Médecines Sans Frontièrs (MSF) hosted a week of training in September 2015 aimed at instructing fishermen on the risks associated with rescuing hundreds of people in a state of panic. Specific issues covered during the workshop included, precautionary measures to adopt when rescuing migrants, potential communicable diseases and how to avoid transmission, and communication with other vessels such as the Tunisian Coast Guard.

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Chams-eddine Bourassine, president of the Fishermen Association of Zarzis, during a meeting in the association  bureau. Chams-eddine and the other fishermen have become active players in the rescue of migrants traveling on board of dinghies managed by Libyan smugglers since the revolution.

A mosque under construction on the road from Zarzis to the Libyan border.

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All Photographs © Valentino Bellini / All texts © Eileen Quinn