The four Tunisian mothers meet with the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando | Photo: ANSA
The four Tunisian mothers meet with the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando | Photo: ANSA

Four Tunisian mothers have been brought to the city of Agrigento in Sicily to identify the bodies of their children. They died when their boat sank off Lampedusa on October 7. The women were called up as part of a probe into the incident. Only two of the four mothers were able to identify the bodies of their children.

Fheker had just turned 18 and dreamt of leaving Tunisia to travel the world. Ignoring his mother's pleas, he left on a boat in early October that was heading towards the Italian coast.

Lazar, 32, did the same: leaving behind a wife and a 4-year-old daughter. However, for him it was a matter of life and death: He had cancer, and his visa application was rejected. The dreams of Fheker and Lazar died when high waves, a few meters off the coast of Lampedusa, led to the capsizing of the boat they were traveling in.

While 149 of the 170 passengers were rescued by patrol boat, 21 drowned. Assistant prosecutor Salvatore Vella, who is coordinating the probe into the incident, summoned the mothers of four of the victims, to identify their children. Through DNA testing, two of them were able to find the bodies of their sons; the other two were not.

Mothers recount what their sons were seeking, amid tears

On Sunday morning the four women, accompanied by a Tunisian representative for a local cultural council and union representative, Nadine Abdia, met Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando at the town council headquarters. In tears, Zakia, Fheker's mother, showed a photo of her son, who ''wanted to travel the world."

Lazar's mother Gamra said that her son had not wanted to give up against a tumor that had been devouring his body. ''He got sick four years ago,'' she said. "But the Italian consulate refused him a visa for health reasons.

"Then he decided to leave on that boat, after putting his medical records in a plastic envelope and attaching them to his abdomen with adhesive tape," Gamra said. A child who had drowned in a similar incident had sewn his school report card into his lifejacket to show that he had been good at school. Gamra, who came to Sicily with the other mothers after money was raised by the Tunisian community in Palermo, cried desperately.

"I will go back to Tunisia with empty hands, without even my son's body. What will I tell my granddaughter, who is constantly asking about her father?" Without a death certificate, Lazar's family will not be able to receive government subsidies.

At least three years will have to go by after his reported disappearance before they can apply.

Mediterranean deaths 'not only numbers'

Assistant prosecutor Vella told Lazar's mother that he would try to help her, as did mayor Orlando, who gave a copy of the Palermo Charter on Migrant Rights to the four mothers after uniting with them in prayer before a Quran.

"For the first time,'' the mayor said, ''people who lost their lives in the Mediterranean are not just seen as numbers. These are stories that touch every one of us deeply, because we can imagine ourselves in similar situations. These are mothers that give a voice also to thousands and thousands of other mothers that will never have one."

Orlando called the Italian consulate's decision to refuse Lazar a visa for medical treatment ''shameful.'' He added that the choice was a result of the wider political climate, in which national governments refuse to uphold human rights.

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