Tunisian cemetery offers living memorial to ‘unknown migrants’

Tunisian cemetery offers living memorial to ‘unknown migrants’
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, left, with Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi in the Jardin d’Afrique (Garden of Africa) cemetery for migrants, Zarzis, Tunisia, June 9, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 11 June 2021

Tunisian cemetery offers living memorial to ‘unknown migrants’

Tunisian cemetery offers living memorial to ‘unknown migrants’
  • Garden of Africa graveyard in fishing village of Zarzis holds remains of migrants who died trying to reach Europe
  • Artist Rachid Koraichi, 74, decorated the site in tribute to those ‘condemned by the sea after facing the Sahara’

ROME: A garden cemetery to honor some of the unknown migrants who died while crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe has been inaugurated in Zarzis, a Tunisian fishing village near the border with Libya.

The Jardin d’Afrique (Garden of Africa) cemetery includes a traditional 17th-century door, hand-painted ceramic naves and a prayer hall for all religions made by Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi.

Foreign envoys to Tunisia and a UNESCO representative attending the inaugural ceremony at the site were told that half of its 200 burial places are already full.

More than 21,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the UN.

The cemetery and its garden of olive trees will hold the remains of unknown migrants, and aims to be a symbol as well as a place to remember and pray.

Koraichi, 74, said that the migrants buried there were “condemned by the sea” after facing “the Sahara, bandits and terrorists” and sometimes even torture.

“I wanted to help them go to heaven after the hell they went through,” he told Italian news agency ANSA.

A member of Tijaniyya, an influential Sufi order, launched the burial site project after hearing that Zarzis was running out of space to bury the dozens of dead bodies that washed up in the coastal village each summer.

The remains of more than 1,000 migrants have been buried in the town in the past decade.

In 2018, Koraichi bought land for the cemetery, and began work on decorations and facilities.

“I did this to help families mourn their loved ones, knowing that they have a dignified burial place,” he said.

Koraichi said that he viewed the garden as a symbolic place, similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “because we are all responsible for this tragedy.”

The cemetery holds more than 200 white graves, surrounded by five olive trees, which symbolize the five pillars of Islam, and 12 vines representing the Christian apostles.

Gravestone markers have various descriptions, such as “Man, black shirt, Four Seasons Hotel,” or “Woman, black dress, Hachani beach,” which describe the unidentified corpse, where the body was found, and other elements that could help with identification.

An onsite facility where autopsies can be performed is planned in order to help identification.

Currently, autopsies take place in Gabes, 140 km away, which means the authorities have to transport the bodies in difficult conditions.

At the inauguration, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay paid tribute to Koraichi but also to “the shipwrecked people who died at sea in search of a better life” and to the “universal solidarity of associations, fishermen or individuals who save lives.”

Zarzis Mayor Mekki Lourraidh said: “Many of the young people from Zarzis left for Europe by sea. There were deaths, and we see our children among them.”