The cemetery of unknown refugees from the Mediterranean
Hundreds of people have been buried outside Zarzis, Tunisia, after drowning while attempting to cross the sea.
Zarzis, Tunisia – “I’ll sometimes get a knock on my door at night when a new body has been found,” says Chemseddine Marzoug. “Autumn and winter, when the winds are stronger, is when most of the bodies wash ashore.”
Marzoug stands on a hilly wasteland outside the city of Zarzis in southern Tunisia. The sand is spotted with small bushes and pieces of rubbish, and in the distance are plantations of olive trees.
There is nothing to indicate that this is a cemetery, where hundreds of people have been buried after drowning while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. One of the latest victims, an African woman in her 30s, was found on the beach in Zarzis without any documents after floating in the sea for about a month.
More than 4,400 people have died or gone missing this year while trying to make the deadly crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project. Most bodies are never found, but the largest number wash ashore in Libya or Italy and are buried there.
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Marzoug, 51, has assisted with burying unknown refugees in Zarzis as a volunteer for the Red Crescent for the past two decades. The father of five, who earns his living as a fisherman and sometimes as a taxi driver, points towards a slight mound in the sand as the wind whips around him.
“He was around 32 years old, buried in March,” he explains. A few steps further along, he points again: “A man without a head.” None of the graves are marked.
Nobody knows how many people have been buried here exactly, although Marzoug estimates that there have been at least 200 in the past six years. In the late 1990s, as more people started to cross the sea, those who drowned were initially buried in a separate corner of the main cemeteries of Zarzis and Ben Guerdane – but as their numbers grew, some locals started protesting.
“Some argued that these people were not Muslims or believers. It made me angry. Aren’t we all human beings?” Marzoug says.
The municipalities later allocated special burial locations: a former site for depositing rubbish south of Zarzis and a piece of land at Port el-Ketf outside Ben Guerdane. As the sea currents tend to bring most bodies to the shore near Zarzis, the majority of bodies are buried there.
Whenever a new body is found on the shores of Zarzis, the National Guard or the municipality calls Marzoug and a Red Crescent volunteer doctor, who must confirm that the person is dead. “In many cases they have been in the sea for months, so then it’s just a skeleton without any flesh,” Marzoug says.
He looks over the hilly wasteland. “Doesn’t it look terrible? We have been trying to get funds for 15 years to make this cemetery look decent and to arrange more respectful burials.”
Improvements such as a fence, numbered graves and a paved road leading to the site are among the needed changes, he says – along with an archive and DNA bank.
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“Unfortunately, we don’t have the money and equipment to take DNA,” Marzoug says, citing the need for international aid organisations to step in. “It’s hard to get money from Tunisians in the current crisis, and if people have money, they would rather give it to poor children than to a cemetery for dead strangers.”
Over the past few years, a number of Syrians have come to Zarzis to ask about their loved ones, says Marzoug’s Red Crescent colleague, Dr Mongi Slim. But under current circumstances, none of the bodies can be identified. Last month, Slim recalled receiving a phone call from a Syrian man who had been rescued in Italy and was looking for his wife and daughter.
“He sent me photos by email to ask if I had seen their bodies,” Slim says. “Of course I didn’t recognise them. It’s heartbreaking.”
There are usually no identification papers found, either because refugees have lost or discarded them, or they have disintegrated after spending months immersed in water. “If we find a passport, that doesn’t always mean it belongs to the person who has drowned,” Slim adds. “Once we found the passport of a Syrian girl, and later we discovered she was alive in Sweden.”
The people who end up here had hopes and dreams like you and me ... Their families may still be waiting for a postcard or money from them.
In cases where a large number of bodies wash ashore, more volunteers are asked to help with burying the deceased.
“You really need a strong heart for it,” Marzoug says. “I’m used to it now, although when my mother died last month, I couldn’t bring myself to attend the washing. I am used to the sight of dead bodies, but not of someone I know.”
He is silent for a moment, and then adds: “Some things I can’t forget, like the man without a head, or the woman we found in the summer of 2014, who had a two-year-old child tied to her body. After we buried them, my colleague and I just sat on the beach and cried … The people who end up here had hopes and dreams like you and me, people who were so unlucky that they had to run away from poverty or war. Their families may still be waiting for a postcard or money from them.”
Later, Marzoug sits at a table inside the Fishermen’s Association in central Zarzis next to his colleague, fisherman Salah Eddinne Mcharek, who draws a map of Tunisia, Libya and Italy.
“This triangle between Tripoli, Zouara and Lampedusa is ‘the black zone’, with so many corpses floating around that nobody wants to fish there any more,” he says. “Besides, Libyan smugglers steal our boats and make us pay 2,000 dinars [$860] to get them back. We don’t dare go near there any more and are now only catching 25 percent of the fish we caught last year.
“The smugglers usually throw the migrants overboard close to the Doctors Without Borders boats and return to get more people,” he adds. “They put up to 100 people in plastic boats made for a maximum of 20. The boats are lighter, so when people are not rescued, the boats usually wash ashore first. In the following days, when the tide is high, you can expect the bodies to arrive one by one.”
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