Seven years into the Jasmine Revolution, there are no answers as to what happened to the hundreds of Tunisians who disappeared after illegally crossing into Italy.
TUNIS — Earlier in September, Fatima Kasraoui gathered with other Tunisians outside the Italian embassy in Tunis to demand the release of local fishermen detained by the Italian authorities over allegations of smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean. But that wasn’t the only protest she was holding on that day.
Standing in a group of women who raised photos of their sons, she and the other mothers were there to draw attention to dozens of other families who have had no news of their loved ones after they boarded boats and headed to Italy.
“My son Ramzy [then 25 years old] left at the start of March 2011 with a group of boys. He was jobless, looking for a change”, recalled Kasraoui days ago, after walking from Bab Jedid, in the old city of Tunis, where she is originally from.
“My daughter got a [silent] call from an unidentified number the day after, another mysterious call one week later, then nothing since”, she went on, suggesting it was likely to be Ramzy. Back then she was extremely worried, not knowing if he had made it to Italy.
A month later, in April 2011, she saw her son in a documentary that aired on Italian television about migrant detention centres. Among the migrants shown were young people who had left with Ramzy. In one segment of the report, a young man stuck his head out of a bus window and screamed: “I won’t go back to Tunisia.”
With proof that her child is alive, Kasraoui has since founded the Association of Mothers of the Missing, and joined other families in their battle to find out the truth about what happened to the missing Tunisian migrants in Italy.
Over the past seven years, she has joined with several other groups formed by families of the disappeared to hold demonstrations in front of both the Social Affairs and Interior Ministries, the parliament and the Italian embassy. Some of the associations have also collaborated with Italian and European groups, such as Carovana Migranti, the Venticinque Undici group, and the anti-mafia association Libera, but with no results so far. The Tunisian authorities have refused to track and repatriate the disappeared.
“I want to know where’s my son, how he’s doing,” said Ramzy’s mother, who has been frustrated and restless, struggling to find any hint of information on her son’s whereabouts.
There are families who suspect their missing young men have been sent to war zones, others suggest they have ended up in the hands of the Italian mafia, held in detention centres, or exploited to work in Italy’s agricultural industry.
In La Marsa, in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital, a poor woman called Wahida Hachani has been suffering ever since her only child departed for Italy in 2011.
Catching up with her mother on the road to her house, the old woman looked tired as she implied that she doesn’t know how to deal with her daughter’s suffering. “I’m telling Wahida that her son is dead,” she explained.
Waiting at home, Hachani shared her sad memories. Her face had severe burns and she breathed with difficulty. She cried as she recounted the day in March 2011 when her son Mehdi, then aged 20, left home without any notice.
He phoned from Haouareia, on Tunisia’s northern coast, to inform his mother that he was heading to Italy. He then called on the day of the crossing, telling her not to worry, that he would find opportunities abroad. She was in tears begging him not to leave.
One month later, she saw Mehdi in news footage on Italian TV, showing him in a group migrants who were being given packs of basic aid by the Red Crescent. In a mix of frustration and depression, she has been waiting for his return for years now.
Ever since her son left, Hachani has received calls from abroad every now and then, but the person at the end of the phone doesn’t speak. She is convinced the person calling is her loved one.
“I would pick up the phone, hear nothing, and implore ‘please, if you can’t talk, say something...even just ah,’” she explained. “Then I would hear ‘ah’ and the phone hung up. I’m sure it’s him.”
Two years went by without a trace of where Mehdi might be. She says she began to think: “I’ve lost my child, my life has stopped”. In act of desperation in December 2013, she set herself on fire, resulting in severe burns to her face. She was in a coma for three months. Since then, Hachani suffers from hypertension, her right hand has gone numb and her heart is weak. She also has kidney stones.
Following her attempted suicide and the health issues she developed, Hachani was forced to stop working. Disabled and with no income, she now lives in modest conditions with her mother and stepfather.
At the peak of the Tunisian uprising, which sparked the Arab Spring, tens of thousands of young Tunisians embarked on journeys toward Europe amid the chaos and lack of coastal controls. Hundreds of them vanished at sea.
Around 29,685 Tunisian migrants arrived in Italy “irregularly” in 2011 alone, based on a report by the Special Rapporteur on migrants' rights, François Crépeau.
According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), some 1,500 Tunisians disappeared in 2011. So far, the organisation has recorded 504 youths who went missing that year after crossing the Mediterranean.
Most of the fathers and mothers never heard from them again while others have recognised their children in photos and video recordings.
For Halima Aissa, president of the Association for Research and the Disappeared (ARDEPTE), there are almost 30 documented cases of Tunisian youths who arrived in Italy and disappeared.
“Despite we researched and proved by photos and videos that these youth had reached Italy, there have been no results,” she said.
While some family members hope that their loved ones are alive, they are all devastated by the complete silence over their cases.
“The file of the missing migrants has become increasingly heavy and obscure. Local media don’t talk about it, civil society doesn’t raise this issue as it should,” Aissa told TRT World. “It prompts us, associations and families, to continue our search.”
The association Land for All, headed by Imed Soltani, whose two nephews disappeared at sea, has been supporting the families of missing youths by organising protests in front of Tunisian ministries, and filing complaints in Tunisia and Italy.
After much pressure from Land for All, the Tunisian government has organised an inquiry into the disappearance of the young people since 2015. The Tunisian commission and its Italian counterpart have collaborated to investigate what happened to the missing men.
However, the families of the victims have reportedly complained of being excluded from the process along with their lawyers, and denounced the Tunisian state’s handling of the missing youths’ dossier as “lax.”
Abderrahman Hedhili, former president of the FTDES, accused the government-tasked committee of “not [being] serious” and said that since end of last year, there has been no real investigation. The question of the Tunisian migrant desaparecidos has not progressed to date.
Expectations from the Tunisian state are low as there has been no response on the young people’s disappearances to date. The last time Kasraoui was at the ministry of foreign affairs two months ago to follow up on the case of the 22 missing migrants, including her son, she saw the file on a shelf, although staff in charge of it denied it was archived.
There are no answers from the Italian government either. Some parents have travelled to Italy and approached the Tunisian consulate to obtain news about their children, but it refused to receive them.
“I feel like there’s a will from both sides to close the dossier,” Kasraoui stated. She called on the Tunisian judiciary to work with its Italian counterpart to unveil the truth.
“Knowing that my Ramzy is alive is what gives me strength and hope to stand up and carry on my battle”, she said.
Hachani is less hopeful. “I expect nothing from Tunisia nor Italy,” she said. “I just expect my son to be back one day.”