On a donated plot of land on the outskirts of Zarzis, a cemetery marked by a sign labeled “Cemetery for Unknown” in six languages has become the resting place for hundreds of unidentified bodies. One Tunisian man has devoted himself to giving migrants who died at sea dignity in death. At 52, Chamseddine Marzoug, a former fisherman-turned-gravedigger, has built over 400 graves in the span of a dozen years for migrants who perished at sea in an effort to reach Europe. Coming from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, as well as Tunisia, these migrants often washed ashore with no family to claim their bodies. “They didn’t have any families to care for them,” he was quoted last September in a Washington Post article by Sudarsan Raghavan, continuing, “So I decided to become their family.”
Marzoug had moved to Zarzis, a coastal commune in Tunisia, with his family in 1990 to work as a fisherman and began volunteering with migrants he met, including the aid group Red Crescent, which houses hundreds of migrants, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 2005, he cleared out a strip of land that had been a trash dump and, using his earnings from fishing and taxi driving, created the cemetery. Before this, any bodies that washed ashore were picked up in a “rubbish truck” and “dumped “in a hole and then sand was thrown into it,” according to Marzoug, who continued, “Now, when we bury them, we give them dignity.”
Since 2000, at least 33,761 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, as reported by the United Nations International Organization for Migration. The body count has accumulated from migrants dying while searching for a better life, as well as human traffickers who have begun to use Tunisia as a starting point for voyage due to the Tunisian coast guard stopping incoming migrant boats, according to the Washington Post. But these aren’t the only bodies washing ashore -- Marzoug has noted more Tunisian deaths in the wake of Tunisia’s rising unemployment problems, as people are fleeing to Europe in search of jobs.
With five children and three grandchildren of his own, Marzoug acknowledges the struggle with unemployment that Tunisian youth are facing. Marzoug himself earns his living as a mechanic, noting that when he was younger, the economy was better, but now he is too old to migrate, according to the Los Angeles Times. Alongside Marzoug, his wife, two married daughters, and 12-year-old daughter Yasmine remain in Tunisia. His own two sons, Firas and Ilyes had secretly boarded “boats of death,” what Marzoug calls the smuggling boats that migrants use, in search of jobs overseas. Fortunately, his sons had survived the voyage. “I believe the bodies of the migrants I buried prayed to God that my sons would reach Europe safely,” he told the Washington Post.
As a fisherman, Marzoug had volunteered at camps and rescue boats. Two years ago, he fell while working on a shipping container with migrant relief supplies, breaking his left ankle and leading him to working on burials closer to home. His injury has not deterred him from his goals. Each morning the short Tunisian man checks the beaches for any bodies, carefully placing them into body bags, transporting them to the hospital for a medical report, and washing them before bringing them to the graveyard.
In Zarzis, any discoveries of bodies by locals or officials are reported to Marzoug. “Those calls come often, sometimes, once a day,” he said in an interview with Scott Simon for NPR. To Mongi Slim, the head of the Red Crescent, which Marzoug volunteers for, Marzoug is “a humanitarian… Not a lot of people want to take the bodies from the sea, carry them to the hospital and then bury them.”
This year, Marzoug has buried 12 bodies, while last year he had buried 81 people. As cited by the Los Angeles Times, he wishes to someday have a DNA archive and is currently lobbying for DNA kits in the hopes that families will be able to identify their dead and find closure. Amidst the graves of the unknown, only one grave is marked: Rose-Marie, Nigeria, 27-5-2017. Rose-Marie had been identified by her boyfriend, Amadine Nosa, who detailed her struggle from Nigeria and her demise at sea when she fell ill and could not swim when the boat began to sink.
Marzoug has expressed both grief and anger at his job, or more specifically at the reason why migrants are dying in the first place. “They are not at fault for being buried here. We are at fault. You are at fault. The world is at fault,” he stated in an article by Jacob Svendsen and Johannes Skov Andersen for The Guardian, continuing, “The truly guilty are the politicians keeping them from leaving. The migrants are African and no one is interested in them. But if it had been a man with blond hair and green eyes, you would all be interested.”
When able to, Marzoug plans to move closer to the cemetery in order to watch over it. “I am their family. I belong with them,” he told the Los Angeles Times. In the words of the Washington Post: “Marzoug gives the migrants in death what they failed to receive in life: a recognition of their worth.”