A former fisherman in Tunisia's coastal town of Zarzis has been burying migrants who die in the Mediterranean while searching for a better life in Europe. A one-man mission to give rest to the hundreds of people forgotten at sea.
A 600 square metre plot of land, formerly part of a landfill, some eight kilometres from Zarzis, in southern Tunisia, serves as an informal burial site. It is not like any other cemetery. The small piece of land provides an ad-hoc place for burial for the men, women and children drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe.
Passing through two red-brick pillars that mark the entrance to the cemetery, Chamseddine Marzoug recalled when he began working as a volunteer with the Red Crescent in the early 2000s. It was in 2005 that he and his fellow fishermen started finding migrants in the sea. They would be moved by the sight of bodies floating in water while they were going fishing.
While they were initially able to rescue a few people, they also came across more and more bodies washing onto the shores of Zarzis, which had to be buried in the town’s cemetery.
When a boat carrying 54 Syrians shipwrecked off the coast in 2011, some families started opposing the burying of migrants in the local cemetery. The authorities were forced to grant a separate piece of land for their burial.
That is how the former fisherman decided to build, in the best way he could, the ‘Cemetery of the Unknown’, the name displayed in six languages on a big sign that marks the graveyard area.
“I wanted to make sure the dead migrants we picked up at sea had a proper resting place where their relatives could one day come to find them”, Marzoug said.
With the help of a small group of volunteers, he carries out the burial in coordination with the Zarzis town council, the Civil Protection service, the National Guard and the Red Crescent.
Mongi Slim, head of the southern branch of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), explained that due to lack of capacity on the municipality’s side volunteers help with transportation of the dead corpses as and when needed. He said that he often makes his own van available to take the corpses to the hospital for postmortems.
The TRC’s regional director praised the humanitarian initiative entirely led by the 52 -year-old man, saying: “Essentially it’s Chamseddine who has a hardened heart to handle such sensitive things. It’s not easy at all.”
Every time he finds a body washed up on the beach, he puts it in a body bag, delivers it to hospital for a medical report which is then transmitted to the public prosecutor who finally authorises the burial. Later, he cleans up the corpse and transports it to the graveyard. He does a job nobody wants to do.
His honourable task doesn’t stop there. He takes care of the site’s maintenance out of his own pocket. He goes there three times a week at least, watering flowers and small trees, planting, and removing weeds.
“I have become the family of these [dead] migrants who don’t have anyone”, he explained. “It’s a mission that God gave me.”
Walking across the cemetery for migrants, the increasingly crowded space has more than 400 unmarked graves, many of them dug one on top of another, with flowers and toys placed over them.
Most corpses are found without identification, and their identity cannot be established by the time the decomposed bodies surface.
Only one grave carries a headstone. It reads: Rose-Marie, Nigeria, 27-5-2017. A young Nigerian woman who was identified by survivors of the boat she was on that capsized off the coast of Zarzis two years ago.
But for Marzoug, who has witnessed death resulting from attempts by migrants to cross the Mediterranean, all these people without a name are worthy of respect.
“Each grave here is a story, a wish, a dream for a better life,” he stated. “I’m not a hero. I just want to give these wretched souls a dignified rest, some humanity.”
He explains how every day migrants who are oppressed in their countries go to Libya, where they are oppressed even more, and finally board boats that can take them to death.
Sim shared similar thoughts. “These people are simply ignored by the international community. Family members have hopes to see them again, to hear from them,” he commented. “sadly, they don’t know their dear ones are buried at the cemetery of the unknown.”
While stricter migration policies enacted by the EU led to a sharp decline in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe, there are still thousands that keep risking their lives. It increases the likelihood of dying at sea, leading to more deaths in the Central Mediterranean, one of the world's most dangerous migration routes.
As the number of migrants reaching Europe has decreased dramatically, death rates have disturbingly risen. Based on IOM data, the year 2019 has so far recorded a 1.9% proportion of deaths versus attempted crossings in the Mediterranean, in contrast to 1.5% in 2018. Despite the decline in arrivals, proportionally more men, women and children are dying at sea.
Calling the EU’s border policies “a manhunt”, Marzoug slammed Europe for issuing laws aimed at blocking migrant ships, stopping and penalising aid and rescue at sea, and driving off migrants.
“How can European lawmakers criminalise a human being who helps another? Instead of protecting borders, protect these miserable people!” he said, blaming EU states for making the journeys deadly for migrants.
A protagonist in Giulia Bertoluzzi’s Strange Fish, a documentary that honours the Zarzis fishermen who collect and bury migrants’ bodies washed ashore, Marzoug was invited at the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in March. There, he spoke about the criminalisation of solidarity and migration.
Caroline Abu Sa'da, FIFDH’s Editorial Manager, told how she initiated the invitation to Mr Marzoug: “Once we selected Strange Fish, Chamseddine appeared to us as a very strong character for the panel debate on the migration crisis that we held after the film screening,” she said.
Talking about the Tunisian man’s contribution to the discussion over assistance and solidarity with migrants, the festival manager noted that it served to highlight the engagement of local communities.
“We wanted to show that the fishermen of Zarzis are the first respondents to saving and dignifying human lives at sea, yet their dedicated work is never really acknowledged,” Abu Sa'da said. “That’s why having Chamseddine at our festival was extremely powerful.”
While bodies continue to arrive on the beaches of Zarzis, the makeshift graveyard has practically no space left for more burials.
The tireless man of Zarzis is planning to create a new cemetery by next month so that he can give a more decent burial to the new drowned migrants taken by the sea. Thanks to various donations and the generous help of an Algerian artist, Red Crescent has purchased a 2,500 square metre patch of land nearby.
The new resting place, which will be named The Garden of Africa, is set to provide additional room for the graves but also offer a space to commemorate the victims of the sea. The site will be decorated with trees and flowers of the African continent, there will be concrete-made graves with headstones, and a memorial will be built. There is also a plan to obtain DNA testing kits to identify the dead.
“I dream for these people. May God help me to accomplish my mission of giving them dignity,” Marzoug said, with hope.