Don’t ruin summer, Lebanon tourism minister pleads after shootout

Lebanese minister of tourism Avedis Guidanian gestures as he talks during an interview with Reuters, at Beirut International Airport, Lebanon July 3, 2019. Picture taken July 3, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 09 July 2019
0

Don’t ruin summer, Lebanon tourism minister pleads after shootout

  • Tourism minister warned that the summer forecast would take a hit if political tensions persisted

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s tourism minister urged politicians on Tuesday not to wreck the country’s best tourist season in years, after a deadly shooting in a popular mountain region stirred fears of strife.
Avedis Guidanian said more tourists came to Lebanon in the first half of this year than in the same period any year since 2010. But he warned the president in a meeting that the summer forecast would take a hit if political tensions persisted.
“I told him, in case this incident cannot be contained, there are fears. There are many questions from people planning to come,” the minister told a press conference at the presidential palace.
He added that there were no big cancelations so far.
“His excellency (President Michel Aoun) assured me that things are on the right track. God willing, soon, we will have really overcome this.”
The government has vowed to restore security after the shootout on July 1 killed two aides of a minister in the Chouf mountains, one of the bloodiest theaters of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
The tourism industry, once a mainstay of Lebanon’s now-battered economy, has been in the doldrums since 2011 — the year conflict erupted in neighboring Syria.
Political paralysis in Lebanon and travel warnings from Gulf Arab states also added to the sector’s woes.
The slump in tourism has played a part in years of weak economic growth and a hike in the huge public debt, which the government now pledges tough reforms to bring under control.
As relations with Gulf Arab states and security improved, officials including Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri have predicted a promising summer for tourism this year.
“The numbers of people traveling to Lebanon in first six months of 2019 are very encouraging,” Guidanian said on Tuesday.
More people were arriving from Europe and Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, which lifted its travel warning against citizens going to Lebanon this year, the minister said.
Guidanian said the expected rise in tourists would bring in big revenues which Lebanon direly needed. “Imagine if we stopped shooting ourselves in the foot — the politicians I mean.”


Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

Updated 22 July 2019
0

Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

  • A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies

GABES: A putrid odour lingers outside a morgue in Tunisia’s coastal city of Gabes as dozens of bodies of would-be migrants to Europe pulled out of the sea await burial.
A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies and struggling to find them a final resting place.
More than 80 drowned migrants have been retrieved from Tunisian waters — most of them victims of a deadly July 1 shipwreck that left only three survivors.
Fished out of the sea between the port city of Zarzis and the tourist island of Djerba in the south, their bodies were brought to Gabes hospital — the only facility in the region capable of taking DNA samples.
Under pressure from civil society groups, Tunisian authorities have stepped up efforts to systematically collect the DNA of each unidentified drowned migrant, hospital director Hechmi Lakhrech told AFP.
The samples could well be the only hope of informing the victims’ families of their fate, he added.
In the basement morgue, staff use surgical masks or simple scarves to fend off the stench of bodies stacked one top of the other on the floor.
Since July 6, the numbers have “overwhelmed” the morgue’s 30-body capacity, said Lakhrech.
With just two forensic doctors and two assistants, not to mention a lack of equipment, the facility is struggling to keep them properly stored, he added.
After forensic tests, the bodies are kept at the morgue until a burial site is found, which in Tunisia is complicated, according to Gabes governor Mongi Thameur.
Many municipalities have refused to allow the drowned migrants to be buried in their cemeteries.
“Some fear the bodies carry cholera, and others refuse to bury people in Muslim cemeteries if their religion is unknown,” he told AFP.
It comes down to “a problem of mentality and also of humanity in some cases,” he said, adding that many people needed to be “sensitised.”
At the Bouchama cemetery, the only one in Gabes to have so far accepted migrant bodies, 16 graves dug off to the side lie empty.
“My parents are resting here, I don’t want non-Muslims to be buried by their side,” said one local resident.
In front of the hospital, the stifling midday heat beats down as 14 white bags are carefully loaded onto the back of a garbage truck.
Once loaded, it will make the two-hour journey to Zarzis, where an improvised cemetery flooded with the bodies of migrants for several years is now full, and a new one has just been opened.
Each grave is marked with a simple plaque bearing the victim’s DNA file number and burial date.
“On July 12, we collected 45 bodies in one day!” said Zarzis deputy mayor Faouzi Khenissi, calling it a “phenomenal problem.”
The city has taken in the bodies “because we have this culture, we can’t just leave the remains unburied,” he said.
Zarzis is a hotspot for illegal departures to Europe and Khenissi says some of the city’s own youth have also been victims of the wrecks.
Municipal workers and officials take shifts volunteering after work to conduct the burials.
After three hours of prep under the blazing sun, 14 bodies are buried alongside the 47 others already laid to rest at the new site, just outside a shelter for rescued migrants.
Mongi Slim of the country’s Red Crescent called for “international mobilization” to address the issue which “does not concern Tunisia alone.”
“The country is already struggling to take care of rescued migrants, but even more so for those who’ve died.”