The ghosts of Choucha
Usman Bangura is a young man from Sierra Leone who has spent the last five years in the refugee camp in South Tunisia formerly known as Choucha. It is located at the utskirts of the town of Ben Guerdane, separated from Libya by a mere 7 kilometers at the end of which Tunisian soldiers guard the border as migrants cross it every week. The imaginary line which makes the two neighboring countries separate is crossed in both directions: Many enter Tunisia fleeing the conflict in Libya, while others walk to Libya to be smuggled to Europe.
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.
I am instructed to park my car in front of the huge military structure sitting next to the camp, where a young soldier followed by a limping dog asks me for my passport. His eyes are fixed on their objective, making no movement other than that required to collect my personal information and consider whether I am allowed inside the camp to speak with refugees and immigrants.
The Choucha camp was installed with the purpose of temporarily hosting the hundreds of people fleeing Libya. Run by UNHCR, it became home to over 17,000 migrants and refugees. Over the course of five years, the majority of them left the camp, either because granted the status of refugees or having gone back to Libya directed to Europe.
Two years after official closure, approximately 50 men are left in the camp. They are from Sudan, Chad, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, and Egypt. For many of them, UNHCR has consistently turned asylum application down; for those granted refugee status, financial assistance has been gradually reduced
almost to nothing, forcing them to return to Choucha and beg to eat or drink. They were left behind by international organizations, and are ignored by the government and local population, remaining in the dark like ghosts.
Usman Bangura, who represents the others, tells me they have asked UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations for support several times during the past two years, with no success. “We tried to tell them we cannot survive in these conditions. It is very hard to keep going with no access to food and water. They were supposed to help us, but they left us here in a limbo. We are voiceless.”- Kadiril Salifu from Ghana tells me as he shows me the tent he shares with Usman.
“We understand not everyone can be granted the status of refugee, and that resources are limited. But we are human beings and have no one else here apart from those organizations. We are simply asking them to evacuate the camp for good, and to help us with accommodation and other basic elements”- Usman says.
Frozen in a limbo- unable to return home and unnoticed in Tunisia- they refuse to go back to Libya to take a boat to Europe.
“Until a couple of months ago, many people crossed this camp directed to the border with Libya, often with children. We tried to stop them, telling them it is an extremely
dangerous journey, and that they and their children could die. But they never listened to us. I shared my meals with some of those people, and now I do not even know whether they are still alive”- Kadiril.
According to Usman, soldiers at the border near the camp will not stop any of the migrants from entering Libya. As confirmed by staff of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) interviewed on the subject, people are usually not prevented from entering Tunisia from Libya either.
“I was residing in one of the UNHCR camps in Tripoli when I decided to flee the conflict. Together with other migrants like me, I started looking for people willing to drive us to the border with Tunisia. I walked 10 kilometers to reach it and, once I got there, soldiers let me in.
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”.
Once in Tunisian territory, it took him only few days to find the camp, where he knew others like him were receiving assistance from international organizations. Five years later, however, he is still looking for help.
“Others before you came to talk to us and see how we live. Every time, we explain we are alone, and that organizations have forgotten us. I think the only person who could
provide help now is a lawyer, someone who knows about African and international law and who is willing to help us find a better alternative than going back to Libya and pay the smugglers”, Kadiril tells me as he shows me the tent where migrants watch television, make tea and coffee and talk.
It used to be a coffee shop run by a UNHCR employee from Ben Guerdane. He left in 2012, leaving Kadiril in charge of the place. He says it is important to maintain a place where people can forget about their problems, even if they often have no coffee and tea to drink, or if the water they drink is not potable. The only source of water left at the camp comes directly from the sea,
available through a pipe which the authorities tried to close in 2015. Thanks to Usman and Kadiril’s mediation, the pipe was left at its place.
As I slowly make my way out of the camp that day, I can see two migrants collecting food generously offered by a passing driver. Usman and the others wave at me smiling.
Usman, Kadiril, Ibrahim, Adam, Ahmed, Morris, Stephen, Monday and Benedict are only few of those men in a limbo.
They are trying to be heard, surrounded by a government, a body of international organizations and a global community that refuses to acknowledge their presence.
“Sometimes I think it would be easier if I went back to Libya and tried to reach Europe by boat. I think this way when I am tired or when I had a particularly bad day. But then I remember the others here at Choucha, how we have been fighting together, and I realize being smuggled would mean letting go. You see, we are begging for refugee status, as if being a refugee is something one should beg for. I believe I am already a refugee, even if UNHCR refuses to write it down on a piece of paper: I am a man who cannot return home for fear of being killed”- Usman.