Tunisian ex-fisherman gives dignified burial to migrants who drown at sea

A former fisherman Chamseddine Marzouz digs a grave at a make-shift cemetery for migrants in Zarzis, Tunisia, in this file photo. (AFP)
Updated 17 August 2017
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Tunisian ex-fisherman gives dignified burial to migrants who drown at sea

ZARZIS, Tunisia: Armed with just a spade, Chamseddine Marzoug is determined to give a dignified burial to migrants who drowned in waters off his Tunisian hometown trying to reach Europe.
On a patch of sandy wasteland outside the southern port town of Zarzis, the 52-year-old takes a rest from digging two graves under the scorching sun.
In recent years, neighboring Libya has become a key departure point for thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to what they hope will be a better life in Europe.
Thousands have drowned during the dangerous journey after paying human traffickers to board often overcrowded and unseaworthy boats.
“Just because they took part in an illegal crossing — driven to it by misery and injustice — doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be buried with respect and dignity,” said Marzoug.
The unemployed former fisherman, who also previously worked as a driver for the Red Crescent, said he has buried hundreds of dead migrants in the past 12 years.
Off Zarzis, Tunisian fishermen have found themselves on the frontlines of a human tragedy in waters on a route from Libya to Italy.
The fishermen are usually the ones to call the authorities after spotting boatloads of migrants in trouble, and often also help to rescue them.
“You go out to earn a living, but then come back with migrants instead of fish,” said Chamseddine Bourassine, the head of the local fishermen’s association.
“You can’t stand by and watch people die without doing something,” he said.
Since the start of this year, 126 people of different nationalities have been rescued in the waters off Zarzis, according to official figures.
But the bodies of 44 migrants have also been retrieved.
Tunisia’s coast guard often rescues migrants from sinking vessels and even pulls the drowned from the sea, but said burying the dead is beyond the call of duty.
“The coast guard units are in charge of ensuring security in this area bordering Libya,” said Sami Saleh, head of maritime operations in Zarzis.
“They’re not rescue units and aren’t equipped to retrieve dead bodies. With our limited means, our officers do the best they can, but burying the dead is not part of our duties.”
In waters bordering chaos-ridden Libya, Saleh said the coast guard has more important concerns.
“We need to check if there are any suspicious individuals, weapons or explosives,” he said.
The lack of a specifically tasked authority is just one of the obstacles to giving the migrants a dignified burial.
Mongi Slim, head of the local branch of the Red Crescent, said there is also a “cemetery problem.”
People “don’t accept to bury strangers in their family plots” in cemeteries that are already overflowing, he said.
Instead, Marzoug has obtained official permission to bury the migrants in a makeshift burial ground far from the town’s homes and next to a garbage dump.
Near an open grave, a black body bag lies on the sand beyond empty bottles and other trash.
Mounds of sand are the only indication of the people laid to rest in the stony terrain.
The graves are simple and unmarked, but their self-appointed digger — whose own son has made the sea crossing to Europe — remembers each and every one of their occupants.
In one grave lie two children, aged around four and five when they died.
In another rests a woman pulled from the sea, her head missing.
In yet another is a man found with an arm missing.
“The images of the bodies, especially those that were decomposing, are seared into my brain. It’s not easy,” Marzoug said.
But “we need to consider them as our children, our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Marzoug has called on the authorities to set up what he calls a “real” cemetery for the migrants who died at sea.
“This isn’t just a Tunisian issue. It concerns all of humanity,” he said.
“I ask the whole world for a decent cemetery where we can bury the migrants properly, with a room for washing their bodies and the means to transport them,” he said.
The Red Crescent is “looking for a plot of land to buy” for this, Slim said, and plans to appeal for donations in Tunisia and abroad.
“We will give them a dignified burial.”


Russia ‘trying to help Syrian refugees to return home’

Russian soldiers distribute aid in the central Syrian province of Homs. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 August 2018
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Russia ‘trying to help Syrian refugees to return home’

  • A buffer zone separates Syria to the east, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west
  • The Russian military police have set up four observation points along the demarcation line on the Syrian side of the buffer zone

MOSCOW: The Russian Defense Ministry said it was coordinating efforts to help Syrian refugees return home and rebuild the country’s infrastructure destroyed by the civil war.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev said in a conference call that included Russian and Syrian officials that work is underway to rebuild dozens of Syria’s power stations, schools and other vital institutions.
In Damascus, Syrian Public Administration Minister Hussein Makhlouf pledged the regime would protect refugee property rights and grant returning refugees a year’s deferral from military conscription.
“The Syrian government is working to simplify procedures for refugees who return, repair housing and try to create new jobs,” Makhlouf said, adding that the authorities were also working to streamline legislation to facilitate refugee returns.
He dismissed as hostile “propaganda” claims that some refugees were facing arrests on their return.
Makhlouf called on Western nations to drop their sanctions against Damascus, introduced early in the seven-year conflict, in order to help post-war restoration and encourage the return of the refugees.
Mizintsev said that over 1.2 million of internally displaced Syrians and about 300,000 refugees have returned in the past two and a half years.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin might take part in a summit with the leaders of Turkey and Iran at the beginning of September.
The three leaders met in April at a summit in Ankara where they discussed developments in Syria.
With help from its Russian ally, President Bashar Assad’s regime has expelled fighters from large parts of Syria’s south since June.
Israel has repeatedly pledged to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence along its border. A series of airstrikes that killed Iranians inside Syria have been attributed to Israel.
A buffer zone separates Syria to the east, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west.
The Russian army’s Lt.-Gen. Sergei Kuralenko told reporters on an organized press tour this week how “stability” had returned to the buffer zone.
Apart from “a few problems with Daesh” in its southern tip, the demilitarized zone was “entirely under control of Syrian military police,” Kuralenko said.
“Everything is ready” for the return of UN troops, he said, after the peacekeepers were forced to withdraw in 2014.
After retaking most of the two southern provinces adjacent to the buffer zone, regime forces last month raised their flag inside, above the key border crossing of Quneitra.
The Russian military police have set up four observation points along the demarcation line on the Syrian side of the buffer zone, Kuralenko said, and plan to set up four more in the near future.
They are “willing to hand them over to the UN if it says it is ready to ensure the monitoring of the Golan alone,” he said.