Rémi Chauvin

An Ocean Between The Waves

If you were to take a morning walk on one of the sprawling beaches around Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia, you’re likely to notice at least one of two things; the astonishing array of debris that washes up here on the sand, and possibly a 64 year old man in a tweed jacket adding some of it to his collection. Mohsen Lihidheb has been roaming these beaches for decades now, and has amassed by his own estimate upwards of 700,000 items, some of which he keeps in his small museum, and some of it he turns into artworks. 

He’s found parts of cars, boats and surfboards; countless mangled lifejackets; enough shoes, hats and clothes to dress an entire army (and a few guns and unexploded bombs to arm them); along with tens of thousands of plastic and glass bottles, inside exactly 59 of which house genuine messages-in-bottles.

You see, by the swirl of ocean currents and surface winds, this little corner of the Mediterranean is a catcher’s mitt for things that wash ashore. 

But that’s not all that lands on these shores.

Chamseddine Marzoug is the self-appointed, volunteer undertaker for the nameless, mostly unidentifiable migrants who wash up on the sunny southern Tunisian shores.

With a cracked wedge of old ceramic, Chamseddine Marzoug grimly measures out a rough rectangle in the sand. “This will be the last grave,” he says. The cemetery is full.” Marzoug has been burying migrants here for over a decade. By his count, there are more than 400 people in his cemetery, and only space for two more. One grave has already been dug, and the next he has just marked out just alongside. He wants to be ready, as it’s nearly spring here, the season which floats the most bodies his way.

Marzoug is the self-appointed, volunteer undertaker for the nameless, mostly unidentifiable migrants who wash up on the sunny southern Tunisian shores, just next to the border with Libya. It is he they call when another bloated body is found, it is he who washes and cleans them where they’re found, and it is he who finally shovels the dirt across these poor, lost souls.

Marzoug makes it quite clear who he holds responsible for this situation. 

Mr Marzoug has buried more than 400 people in this small cemetery since 2005, but with only two spaces left, is worried for imminent spring and summer seasons, which will undoubtedly see more bodies wash in with the currents.

He has been to Lampedusa in Italy and has seen the resources and situation there. He knows Italy gives direct support to Libyan militias acting as coast guards, whose aggressive tactics in stopping boats and returning migrants to Libya are believed to have led to deaths at sea. Marzoug knows how much money is being spent on the issue in Europe, but sees nothing being done here in Northern Africa, the source of the problem, to help the situation. 

And so still the bodies keep coming, more every year. In 2017 he buried 75 people. In another cemetery in nearby Ben Guerdane, Marzoug buried 54 Syrians in three days in 2014. He is sure 2018 will see even more again, but doesn’t have an answer for where he will bury them.

If there’s a sure sign there are more bodies coming, it can be found in the offices for the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), located an hour away in the neighbouring town of Medinine. They received 70 people in the last four days alone, all detained following an attempt to make the journey to Europe. 

As we blow past row after row of mushrooming olive groves, Mongi Slim gets no less than a dozen calls on the hour-long drive to Medinine, all from migrants in the area. Slim is the regional director of the TRC here in Tunisia, and evidently a busy man I’m shocked to learn only volunteers his time for the TRC. First a Ghanaian man calls to ask if Slim can help with phone credit so he can call home, next is an Iraqi asking Slim if there’s anything he can do to help with the rent for his house in Medinine, and finally a Nigerian querying if he can arrange to fly his girlfriend down from France so they can get married. Slim answers each of them fluently in Arabic, English or French, and with a light laugh after each call, he apologises, and exclaims that there is always something happening. 

Nourredine Souei maintains a shelter in Zarzis in preparation for the arrival of a boatload of migrants leaving Libya. Spring is the beginning of the season for migration in the Mediterranean, with thousands of refugees expected.

Marwa Mosbeh, a nurse at the Tunisian Red Crescent, is busy with paperwork following an arrival of 70 people in four days at the Medinine facility. 

He explains there are actually two TRC centers here, one for those deemed legitimate refugees by the UNHCR on the ground here, and another for those classified as irregular migrants. There’s often little difference between the horrors they’ve endured, but they’re housed separately anyway. Those classed as refugees are cared for in one facility with the help of the UNHCR, and go into their relocation program where they have the chance to end up somewhere else, usually Europe. Those deemed to be migrants are housed a few kilometres away for up to two months with free food, accommodation and access to health services. After that initial support, they’re welcome to stay in Tunisia, but are out on their own.

Slim also believes the EU needs to do more in Africa to make it clear to the irregular migrates that there is not a life in Europe. 

“Migration will always continue. People are trying to reach Europe. Maybe it is stopped in one place, but it will restart in another. The road of migration is always changing. But it will continue. The EU needs to do something in their country of origin. They need to help people there to stop them from leaving, and they need to advocate that there is no work in Europe, there is nothing.” 

Muhammad Ali, 22 from Niger, escaped to Tunisia six weeks ago from Libya, where he spent four years. 

At the centre for migrants, I first speak to Muhammad Ali, a calm, unfailingly polite 22 year-old from Niger who surely lives up to the great boxer’s name in regards to endurance and survival. He tells me he spent four years in Libya, in which time he was imprisoned five separate times as a slave, sold twice, and beaten continuously by the ruthless Libyan militias. How one finds such calm after such an experience is beyond comprehension.

He talked of the openness of the slave market near the border between Niger and Libya, how the Libyan militias with the authorities as equal partners conduct this business with utter impunity, and how he wasn’t sure if he could survive another day. 

Ali has been in Tunisia for 6 weeks, and doesn’t know what he wants to do next, but for now, being safe in Tunisia is enough while his application for asylum is assessed. 

Rachida Nchouapine, 26 from Cameroon, has been in Tunisia for just one month. Along with her sister and their young children, she too was abused and held captive by militias for months at a time, and was raped in front of her family. Their boat to Italy capsized after only a few hours, and half of their small family was airlifted to Tunisia, where her sister died. Four weeks later, at the time of the photo, she had received no word about her son or nephew, who she last saw on the MSF rescue boat. 

And I speak with Rachida Nchouapine, 26 from Cameroon, who arrived in Tunisia almost one month ago, but whose days are filled with endless anguish.

In December 2016, Nchouapine left Cameroon after civil war broke out and she saw her parents killed in front of her. With her husband and son, Yakouba and Mohamed, and her sister Majoi and her two children, Ange and Warren, the small family ventured through Nigeria, Niger and Algeria, before arriving in Libya. Somewhere in the desolate vastness of the Niger/Algerian border, their group became disorientated and lost in the Saharan desert for six days without food, a time especially hard on the young children, before stumbling into Algeria and finally Libya.

Like so many others, things didn’t improve when they made it to Libya. Nchouapine was held captive and abused by militias for months at a time. “I was jailed with my sister and our little children,” Nchouapine said. “I was raped in front of them.” 

Finally escaping these horrors after nine months, Nchouapine, her sister and their children all ended up in a secluded cove on the Libyan coast, packing themselves into a crammed boat bound for Italy. After only a few hours at sea, their frail ark was taking on water, and in international waters, finally capsized.

“There were so many deaths,” she said. “I was swimming in the middle of bodies.” 

When she made it on board the rescue ship, she found her sister unconscious and unresponsive, and one nephew sick from swallowing so much seawater, with no sign of her son. She made the decision to leave her husband and other nephew with the Italian rescuers to accompany her sister on an emergency helicopter, unaware they would be separated and flown to different continents.

Her sister died two days later in a hospital in Tunisia, and was buried in a nearby Muslim cemetery in Sfax. 

When I spoke to Nchouapine in late February 2018, she was still in Tunisia with one of her nephews, and didn’t know what had happened to her other nephew, or her own son. Nor did her nephew know that his mother had died more than three weeks earlier.

Nchouapine, fighting through tears, is worried her child will be offered up for adoption. “It’s not easy to live like this,” she said. “I am alive, and someone else is going to adopt my child, but I am still alive. I don’t want this.”

“They should have grouped them in the same place so that everyone can be reunited with their family and people with each other. But they split us. They split us, and other people.”

Endurance Efosa, 28 from Nigeria, unconscious and critical after a rescue by Médecins Sans Frontières, was airlifted to Tunisia in late January, 2018. When she awoke two days later, only one of her children was with her. In late February when the photo was taken, there was still no word about her five-year old son, except that he might be with the other survivors of the rescue who are in Italy.

Endurance Efosa, a 28 year-old from Nigeria, left from Libya in the same boat as Rachida Nchouapine, and is also missing one of her children. 

She left Libya with her son Desmond, who is 5, and Dominion her 3 year-old daughter. Efosa grimly describes the panic that spread through their boat when the first leaks were detected out to sea in the dark night.

As the boat filled, she said, people stood up to try to keep their bodies out of the rising water, which made the boat more unsteady and take on even more water. She wasn’t able to stand up herself due to the mass of bodies heaving around her, and could only try to hold her daughter up as high above the water as she could, while she hoped her son was being looked after by a man sitting next to her. By the time the survivors were hauled onto the MSF rescue boat, Efosa was unconscious. 

Two days later, she woke up in a different country, surrounded by people she didn’t know. She had also been airlifted to Tunisia with 15 others, seven of whom were children. “They put me in a helicopter and wrapped me up because they thought I was dead,” she said. “I was filled up with water.” 

Frantic, her daughter was brought to her, safe, but she was then told her son was missing, with no other information except that he might be in Italy with the other survivors. 

Speaking to me almost one month later, there was still no news. It was the pain of not knowing that hurt the most, she doesn’t know if she should grieve or be relieved. “If my son is dead, let me know. If my son is alive, just let me know,” Eposa wept.

Mohsen Lihidheb, artist, collector, poet and former post office employee, has been collecting objects that wash ashore for decades. He maintains a museum in Zarzis containing many artifacts from migrants and refugees that he finds.

And so it is to these people that Mohsen Lihidheb, the great collector, sends his own messages in bottles. When the winds are right and blow from the west, Mohsen has been known to throw his own bottles out in the sea into the whim of the elements. With the lid screwed tight, he writes letters, short poems of love and messages of encouragement, and he even puts little sweets in there, “for sustenance and hope,” he says, for in the waters off these shores are boats filled with harragas, as they’re called in Arabicor what the rest of the world calls desperate migrants. 

Lihidheb’s bottles aren’t the only things leaving Tunisian shores when the weather is right. 

Three young men chat on the shore on a beach in Zarzis. Straight out to sea and over the horizon in front of them lies the promised land of Europe.

In a country with low wages, staggeringly high youth unemployment and a government who has again recently raised taxes and the prices of basic goods, many young Tunisians are looking beyond their home shores. 

Those lucky enough to have a job are battling on minimum wage, earning 400 to 500 dinars (130 - 160 euros) per month. But economists estimate it realistically requires a minimum of 200 euros for a small family to get by monthly. With inflation expected to rise astronomically to 9 – 12% in 2018, it’s only going to get more difficult. 

Here in south, youth unemployment is even higher than the national average of 35%, and everyone I meet, even those with jobs, say they want to leave. Life is simply too difficult. In fact, the only thing stopping people leaving is not actually being able to afford the journey, which at a minimum of 5000 dinar per person, is difficult to save.

Those who do find the money leave predominantly from Kelibia, a village in the north, and from the Kerkennah Islands, which lie off the Tunisian east coast. Boats leaving from these points can reach Sicily or Lampedusa in less than five hours, and the repurposed fishing vessels are generally safer with better captains than those leaving Libya. 

But tragedies still happen.

Fhadila Bouzomita-Jaballah is the mother of Bilel Jaballah, who was killed in October 2017 when a Tunisian coast guard rammed her son’s boat to prevent them leaving Tunisian waters. 

In Ben Guerdane I meet Fhadila Bouzomita-Jaballah, whose 25 year-old son Bilel tried to make the journey in October 2017. Leaving from the Kerkennah Islands, the sturdy fishing boat filled with 92 people caught the attention of the Tunisian coast guard, who followed in pursuit. For over two hours, the coast guard chased the smaller, slower vessel until finally ramming it with fatal consequences. 

54 people were killed in the incident, eight of them never found. 

Bilel’s younger brother Zied, 23, was meant to be going with him to Europe, but a last minute stomach bug made him too sick to take the boat. Even though his brother died trying to get there, and his mother forbids him from leaving without a legitimate visa, Zied still wants to go to Europe, any way he can.

“People want to work, people want to earn money and have a good life,” he said. “It’s not possible here”

Zied hasn’t formally worked in a long time. To get money, he smuggles fuel over the border from Libya. Basic commodities are far cheaper on the other side, and Libyan fuel is readily available on the side of roads throughout Tunisia. But with the crossing facing closer scrutiny and closing regularly, it has become too risky to be a stable income.

Fhadila’s anguish is still fresh, evident in her deep sighs, and she hides her shaking hands by cracking her knuckles obsessively. Bilel’s body was never found, and she hasn’t been able to fully grieve. She holds the Tunisian government responsible, and wants to know the truth. The authorities claim it was an accident, but it bears striking similarity to another incident six years earlier.

Mr Belhida traces some graffiti his son drew on a wall more than a decade ago. He lost his son Abdallah when a Tunisian coast guard rammed his son's boat trying to get to Italy. 

Farouk Belhiba’s son and brother-in-law died with 21 others in 2011 when their boat too was rammed by the Tunisian coast guard. Although the authorities also claimed that it was an accident, a rare court ruling awarded compensation to the victims’ families. Farouk acts as an activist in this regard, constantly campaigning for awareness and justice for les disparus, the disappeared. 

Their message is simple: justice. They want the truth; they want the government to pay the families of the victims compensation; they want the captains of the boats to face punishment; and most importantly, they want DNA testing to be done on the bodies recovered so they can finally have complete closure. 

Despite these incidents, young Tunisians are lining up to leave.

In the rural region of Southern Tunisia, there have been reports of huge numbers of young people leaving for Europe in the latter half of 2017, with 4,709 detained in Italy or Tunisia in the five weeks leading up to November 9 alone. The 8700 people in 2017 is significantly higher than in previous years.

What is especially disconcerting, says Farouk, is that this increase occurred before the government’s recent tax hike, indicating 2018 will likely be an even bigger year if life continues to get more difficult for the average Tunisian.

Fishmongers sell their catch underneath the rusted roof frame of the aging fish market in Zarzis. The fishermen in Zarzis have rescued hundreds of refugees from the Mediterranean sea over the past five years, and pulled in countless other bodies they were unable to save.

Unemployed young men on the street in Zarzis, dreaming of Europe. Here in south, youth unemployment is even higher than the national average of 35%, making young men the most likely demographic to risk taking a boat to Europe, which they’ve been doing in increasing numbers in the past year.

Tataouine, a traditional inland town made famous as a location for Star Wars, saw a reported 600 people, or one percent of the population, leave in the space of only a few weeks in late 2017. In Star Wars, Tataouine is used as the location for Tatooine, the planet on which Luke Skywalker grew up. Coincidentally Skywalker had to leave Tatooine, and did so onboard a smuggler’s ship - the Millennium Falcon.

There are around 150,000 Tunisians officially living France, but the real number is believed to be much higher. France is called home by a huge number of diasporas from former colonies such as Tunisia, Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, and many more. This creates a huge pull factor with many people already having family ties in France.

Migration in Tunisia, whether it be people from sub-Saharan Africa passing through or by Tunisians themselves boarding boats in the night, runs in a parallel trajectory. They’re arguably separate issues, but given the state of migration worldwide, these parallel tracks are perhaps narrowing to the point of being one and the same.

Incredibly, despite knowing what their father buries in a small corner of earth between an olive grove and a rubbish dump just south of Zarzis, Chamseddine Marzoug’s own two sons have themselves made the trip to Europe. While safe, and living and working in Paris, they admit they didn’t tell their father before leaving. 

Marzoug doesn’t blame them. Having been unemployed for so long himself, he knows how difficult life is. What he worries about is the next wave of bodies and where he will put them.

Ortis Benjamin, a 42 year-old biochemist from Nigeria, spent 6 months imprisoned in Libya and was sold five times during this time. He left Libya twice in a boat, but was returned by the coast guard and imprisoned again for work. The second time he was returned, he escaped off the back of a truck and was shot in the leg, before making it to Tunisia. He wants to spread the word through Africa for everyone to avoid Libya, where even the police keep migrants as slaves.

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