Tunisia fishermen turn life-savers in the Med

Tunisian fishermen are worried about the increasing number of immigrants in the sea. (File/AFP)
Updated 16 June 2019

Tunisia fishermen turn life-savers in the Med

  • The fishermen said the amount of European boats saving migrants dropped
  • Some of them were jailed for months in Italy after attempting to save migrants closer to the country’s territorial waters

ZARZIS: The Tunisian trawler radioed in for help as it passed the migrant boat in distress out at sea. But with the packed craft still adrift two days later, captain Chamseddine Bourassine took direct action.
Fishermen from the North African country are spending more and more time pulling in stranded migrants after a sharp decline in humanitarian and European naval patrols along the stretch of water between war-wracked Libya and Italy.
Bourassine, his crew and three other fishing boats ferried the 69 migrants back to shore on May 11, five days after their boat pushed off from Zuwara on the western Libyan coast.
“The area where we fish is a crossing point” between Zuwara and the Italian island of Lampedusa, said Badreddine Mecherek, a Tunisian fisherman from Zarzis near the border with Libya.
Fisherman from Zarzis have saved the lives of hundreds of migrants in recent years, and as the number of boats leaving western Libya for Europe spikes with the return of calmer summer seas, they will probably have to save even more.
“First we warn the authorities, but in the end we end up saving them ourselves,” Mecherek grumbled as he tinkered with his rusting sardine boat.
European countries in the northern Mediterranean are trying to stem the number of migrants landing on their shores, and the Tunisian navy with its limited resources only rescues boats inside the country’s territorial waters.
Since May 31, Tunisia itself has barred 75 migrants from coming ashore after they were saved in international waters by a Tunisian-Egyptian tug boat.
Contacted multiple times by AFP, Tunisian authorities have refused to comment.
“Everyone has disengaged” from the issue, said Mecherek, adding it was hampering his work.
Fishermen who run across migrants on their second day out at sea are at least able to have done a day’s work, he added, “but if we find them on the first night, we have to go back.”
“It’s very complicated to finish the job with people on board.”
The complexity of the rescues grows when fishermen find migrants adrift closer to Italy.
When Bourassine and his crew last year tugged a boat toward Lampedusa which was adrift without a motor, they were jailed in Sicily for four weeks for helping the migrants. It took months to recover their boat.
Humanitarian boats and those of the European Union’s “Operation Sophia” anti-piracy force had scooped up most stranded migrants in recent years, but rescue operations dropped in 2019.
“Now most often we are the first to arrive... if we aren’t there, the migrants die,” Mecherek said.
On May 10, a Tunisian trawler just barely saved the lives of 16 migrants after they had spent eight hours in the water. Sixty others drowned before the ship arrived.
Survivor Ahmed Sijur said the boat’s appearance at dawn was like that of “an angel.”
“I was loosing hope myself, but God sent us the fishermen to save us,” the 30-year-old from Bangladesh said.
Mecherek is more worried than proud.
“We don’t want to see all these corpses anymore. We want to catch fish, not people,” he said, adding his crew was growing uneasy.
“I have 20 seamen on board asking, ‘Who will feed our families?’” he added.
“But local fishermen will never let people die at sea.”
For Tunisian Red Crescent official Mongi Slim, the fishermen “are practically the police of the sea,” adding that many migrants say large ships won’t stop to help.
Under pressure to catch their quota during a short annual season, big tuna boats out of Zarzis often call the coast guard instead of stopping themselves to help.
“We report the migrants, but we can’t bring them back to shore... We only have a few weeks to fish,” said one crew member.
For Chamseddine, the summer months look difficult.
“With fighting having resumed in Libya, traffickers are free to work again.... There’s a risk of many shipwrecks.”


Archaeologist Zahi Hawass: ‘There isn’t a country that doesn’t love Egyptian archaeology’

Updated 17 October 2019

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass: ‘There isn’t a country that doesn’t love Egyptian archaeology’

  • With only 30 percent of Egyptian monuments discovered, there is no rush to pursue the remaining 70 percent which remain hidden underground, says Hawass

 CAIRO: World-renowned Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass has affirmed the importance of Egyptian archaeology around the globe.

“There isn’t a country that does not love Egyptian archaeology,” Hawass, who was minister of state for antiquities affairs, told Arab News.

With only 30 percent of Egyptian monuments discovered, Hawass said there was no rush to pursue the remaining 70 percent which remain hidden underground.

“We don’t want to discover everything. We want to start by preserving and preparing the historical monuments which we have discovered, then start thinking about what is still undiscovered,” Hawass said.

So, restoration and preservation are the main goals for now.

With the new Grand Egyptian Museum still in the works, it seems likely that archaeology will be put in the spotlight once again, with more room for Egyptian artifacts to be showcased and appreciated rather than hidden, as in the old Tahrir museum.

“No one in the world doesn’t know Egypt. Egyptian archaeology is in the hearts of all people all across the world,” Hawass said.

This explains the immense popularity the new museum is expecting, located as it is, minutes away from the Pyramids of Giza.

Another reason behind its expected popularity is the attention ancient Egyptian figures have received across the years.

“Among the most famous ancient Egyptian figures, even for those who are not interested in monuments, we have King Kufu, who built the greatest pyramid, because that pyramid is something everyone talks about,” Hawass said.

He added that King Tutankhamun was popular because his coffin was restored whole, as was King Ramses II, the most famous of Egyptian kings, and Queen Cleopatra. Each of these figures gained fame due to popular tales and monuments attached to them.

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass. (AFP)

Hawass plays a crucial role in drawing awareness about Egyptian archaeology around the world as well as focusing on the current situation in Egypt.

“I lecture everywhere (about archaeology)” he said. “Two to three thousand people attend each of my lectures. So I take advantage of to tell people everywhere that Egypt is safe and that Egypt is run by a president whom we have chosen. I am trying to change the perception about Egypt.”

As part of his efforts to promote Egypt and Egyptian culture, Hawass recently visited Japan.

“They (the Japanese) love archaeology. I would never have expected to be famous in Japan, but as a result of their love of Egyptian archaeology, they know me,” Hawass explained.

This is but a speck in the eventful career Hawass has led — which all started by accident.

“As a child I wanted to become a lawyer, so I enrolled in law school at 16 but realized that it wasn’t something I could do. So I left law and decided to study literature. There they told me about a new section called archaeology,” Hawass said.

After graduating Hawass went to work for the government, which he dreaded, until his first project came along. Workers came across a statue hidden inside a coffin which he had to clean. During the process he found his passion for archaeology. He went on to pursue his graduate studies on the subject.

“I went from failure to success thanks to one thing: Passion. When a person is passionate about something, he excels in it.”

Hawass did not point out his most successful or most preferred moment in his career, so full his life has been of memorable events.

“You cannot prefer one of your children over another. They’re all in my heart, all of the discoveries I have made.”