The city of Zarzis in southern Tunisia takes care of the vast majority of the bodies of migrants that wash up on various beaches in the south of the country. This unanticipated service has created a burden for the small municipality that says it lacks the means.
Two cemeteries for migrants now exist in Zarzis. They both have nearly 1,000 bodies and are reaching saturation point. "It is being left to Zarzis to deal with all the dead," says the clearly annoyed mayor of Zarzis, Mekki Larayedh, speaking with InfoMigrants. The mayor can no longer stand the fact that in recent years his town has become the burial ground for the corpses of migrants washed up by the sea.
Leaving Libya or sometimes Tunisia, many migrants find themselves in boats that are not strong enough to make the journey and are shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea. Their bodies are fished out of the sea, or wash up on the beaches of southern Tunisia due to the prevailing sea currents.
Zarzis does not only accept the thousands of bodies found along its coast. The city also takes care of those recovered throughout the country, including at the borders. In late October, a sub-Saharan African died on the border between Algeria and Tunisia. The region asked Zarzis to take care of his burial. "It's not up to us to manage the remains of the whole of Tunisia," complains Larayedh.
In Tunisia, municipalities are reluctant to receive the bodies of exiles. Many argue that they lack the space to bury them properly. Exceptions do exist and some bodies of migrants have been buried in a few other cemeteries in the country, but it is relatively rare.
Bodies unloaded from dumpsters
The question remains what to do with the bodies of migrants that nobody wants? In 2005, the municipality of Zarzis created the Cemetery of the Unknown on a former dump site far from the city center, in a desert area. In 15 years, at least 500 bodies have been buried there, although the number is difficult to estimate because the place was so hastily built.
"A few years ago, we used to see rubbish dumpsters from the town hall unloading the bodies into mass graves, without taking care of them, as if they were garbage. The dead were then covered with earth," recalls Mongi Slim, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent, looking at the land now covered with fences.
The town hall employees are not trained to handle the remains, sometimes in a state of decomposition, and have no special equipment, not even refrigerated trucks. As a result, the bodies end up being transported in garbage trucks.
Shocked by this treatment, the fisherman Chamesddine Marzoug has buried several dead bodies himself. "I wanted to give back their dignity to those dead", he confides to InfoMigrants, sitting in a bistro in Zarzis, cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other.
Over the past decade, a system was set up. Chamesddine maintained the cemetery, watered the plants, and sometimes meditated. "He took my personal car and dug the graves," explains Slim of the Red Crescent.
In the cemetery, only the date of burial is mentioned. Due to a lack of information, the names of the corpses are not written, except for on one grave, Rose-Marie, a woman from Nigeria. The rest of the cemetery is poorly maintained: it is difficult today to know where the bodies are, as they are so numerous and buried without precise locations. The place is dusty and has no paths or geographical markers.
The absence of markers suggests that the cemetery has not reached its capacity. At the bottom of the enclosure, the ground seems empty and there is no indication of the possible presence of corpses. "Over there? Yes, there are bodies. You may not realize it but they are everywhere," says Slim.
Read more: Six migrants found dead in Tunisian desert
Recently, other citizens have decided to get involved to offer a more decent final resting place to migrants who died at sea. Last June, the Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi opened another cemetery, not far from the first one. He invested all his savings and took out a loan to maintain the place.
"I started to get involved with this project in 2018. It was important to me because I know the pain of families who lose a loved one." The 74-year-old artist, who has exhibited in London, New York and Paris, has himself lost a brother, swept away by the current while swimming in the Mediterranean.
There are very obvious differences between the two cemeteries. While the first is made up only of earth, the second, called Garden of Africa, is a true artistic project. Built with more financial investment, it has a traditional 17th century gate and hand-painted ceramic pathways. Five olive trees and 12 vines line the pathways, in reference to the five pillars of Islam and the 12 apostles of the Christian religion.
The place is peaceful when InfoMigrants visits. The sun lights up the tombs, painted in white where the few details collected are inscribed. "Hotel Villa Azur [place where the body was found]. Man buried on June 2, 2021", "Aghir, 2019, baby", can be read on two of them.
A morgue has been built and a forensic doctor is expected to move to the site soon. Until then, DNA samples were taken in Gabes, a two-hour drive from Zarzis.
In the first five months since it opened, the cemetery is already close to saturation. About 500 bodies have been buried, including children, there is capacity for 800 places. One hundred bodies were still waiting at the end of October in the morgue in Gabes and about 80 in the one in Sfax, 300 kilometers from Zarzis.
"The Garden of Africa will soon be full. What will we do then?" the city's mayor asks. Larayedh is calling on the Tunisian government and the international community for help. "We don't have the means to manage this. Between the transport of bodies to the hospital, the taking of DNA in Gabes, the transfer to Zarzis and burial, we cannot cope," says the mayor. "It has already happened that we collect 100 bodies in a single day, it is unmanageable for the municipal services."
Koraïchi hopes to double the size of his cemetery soon. He is still looking for funds to buy the adjacent land. "If you have any money, I'm happy to accept it!" he says when asked about the expansion date. One thing is certain, the issue of migrants' remains is far from settled in the region.
Leslie Carretero, was reporting on location in Tunisia