Five years after the creation of the "Cemetery of the Unknown", the southern Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis has inaugurated its second migrant cemetery to honor the many people who have lost their lives while attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. The Jardin d’Afrique, or Africa’s Garden, was designed and created by the Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi, and is already filling up at an alarming speed.
When "Africa's Garden" was inaugurated on June 9, in the presence of UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, the cemetery was already half full. For some 200 mostly unidentified migrants it had already become their final resting place.
Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi, who himself lost a brother to the Mediterranean some years ago, embarked on the project in 2018 to give the many victims of the sea a dignified burial.
They are "the wretched of the sea", the 74-year-old artist, whose previous work has been exhibited in London, Paris and New York, told the AFP news agency in a recent interview. He built the cemetery to give the perished migrants "a first taste of paradise," after many of them also fell victims to "gangsters and terrorists," he said.
The bodies recovered from the sea, along with those that repeatedly wash up on the nearby beaches, have often been carried there from Libya – but sometimes also Tunisia – by the strong currents that killed Koraichi's brother while he was on a leisure swim.
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'Cemetery of the Unknown'
Africa’s Garden is not the first migrant burial ground in Zarzis. A few years back, Chamssedine Marzoug, an ex-fisherman, created the "Cemetery of the Unknown", located less than a kilometer away from Koraichi’s cemetery.
But there are clear differences between the two: While the first was built on a sandy plot of land near an old city dump, consisting only of soil and a few lonely flowers to decorate the burial ground, the second is a full-on artistic project, containing a 17th century wooden gate, olive trees, and hand-painted ceramic tile paths.
Out of space
When InfoMigrants met Marzoug back in 2018, he was already deeply worried about the fast-disappearing space in his makeshift cemetery. "Today, the ‘Cemetery of the Unknown’ is full," he told InfoMigrants this week. "It contains more than 500 graves, almost all of them belonging to unidentified sub-Saharan migrants; men, women and children." Only one grave, belonging to a Nigerian woman by the name of Rose-Marie, is marked by a piece of concrete and some flowers. "We visited her grave on May 27, the day she died, with her family," he said.
"I no longer have space for new graves. But I keep coming here to maintain them and to water the plants.” Marzoug hopes that the next Tunisian generation will continue to care for the burial ground also after he is gone. "I bring school students here, and explain the history of the place to them. We plant flowers together on the graves. I wouldn’t like this cemetery to become abandoned one day."
According to Marzoug, Tunisian authorities are doing their very best in respecting the health protocol in taking care of the remains that are found. "Before burying them, the Maritime Guard and the Civil Protection services recover the bodies and try to identify them and take DNA samples," he explained, adding they also handle the transportation of the bodies. In 2019, the municipal services were at the center of a scandal after rights groups accused them of moving the bodies without neither appropriate equipment nor the necessary precautions.
Plans to make the cemetery bigger
The former fisherman says he helped Koraichi find the plot of land he needed to create Africa’s Garden. But, even though it is brand new, he expects it to fill up far too quickly. "A lot of bodies have been found on the beach lately. The day before yesterday (on June 7, eds. note) seven dead migrants were found," he said. "Every week, we recover new bodies."
Koraichi is already considering extending his cemetery. "We plan to buy the adjacent parcel, to make the cemetery bigger," he told AFP.
The number of people departing from neighbouring Libya is rising sharply at the moment, and totalled 11,000 between January and April this year, up a staggering 73% from the year before. But even higher numbers are expected as the summer season approaches and the weather becomes milder and the sea calmer, encouraging more people to try their luck in the hope of a better life on the other side of the sea.
Since the start of this year, the International Organization of Migration (IOM), estimates that at least 640 migrants have died while attempting the dangerous crossing.