Cemetery of outsiders… When dreams are buried on the shores of Tunisia

6 min readFeb 5, 2019
Grave site of an unknown African migrant in Tunisia (Al Jazeera Net)

Hayat Ben Hilal — Tunisia

Shams al-Din Marzouk leaves his home in the southern Tunisian port of Zarzis before sunrise to start a unique search trip on the shores of his city near the Libyan border.

The man approaches the shore and starts a search that may last for hours in for the bodies of unknown migrants who are constantly being thrown into the sea before washing up, lifeless, on the shore.

Walking slowly wearing his waterproof plastic shoes and gray jacket and carrying an umbrella to protect him from the scorching sun, he shifts his gaze from left to right to see any clues, such as flotation devices or rope or anything else that may be evidence of a body nearby. For him, he tries to focus as though he were an investigator so that he may find that first “thread” leading to the discovery of the circumstances surrounding a crime.

An important crossing

The city of Zarzis is one of the coastal cities through which migrants regularly cross the border. After arriving from Libya by boat, they arrive on the coast of Zarzis due to the deteriorating security situation in Libya.

The number of illegal immigrants from Zarzis has reached about 5,000 immigrants since 2011, leading to a constant stream of bodies throughout the year, strewn along the coasts.

Once Shams al-Din discovers what he is looking for, but dreads to find, he puts the body in a bag and then takes it to his four-wheel-drive car and takes and to the nearest hospital, where it is inspected in the presence of the National Guard.

Shams al-Din completes the proceedings and delivers the body, or bodies, to cemeteries, obscure and out of site of residential compounds.

Burial procedures

The cemetery is a dirt area surrounded by olive trees, famous for the city of Zarzis, and includes row of upon row of parallel graves. The grave site is separated from its neighbor by only half a meter. He must navigate through the mud and rain, taking pains not to tread over those who have found their final resting place.

When he arrives, he finds the grave he has dug above ready to receive the “body.” Shams al-Din puts the body box aside and looks at the tomb to confirm his readiness and with the help of colleagues from the Tunisian Red Crescent who hasten to help him whenever necessary.

And then he plants a rose that he had brought before, sprinkles a little water and shakes hands with fellow witnesses and with the tip of his sleeve wipes the sweat from his forehead.

He turns back a little to take a final look, as if he’d forgotten to settle something and then produces a satisfied smile that is nonetheless filled with heaviness — the grief that he feels whenever a human body is found in the ocean or lying along the earth’s barren shores.

The beginning of the journey

Despite the sensitivity of the mission and its difficulty, Shams al-Din is happy with his humanitarian work. No one forces him to do it, as he readily joined the Tunisian Red Crescent Organization. He is modest, not looking for praise, or even recognition.

Shams al-Din is planting roses on a grave with an African immigrant (Al Jazeera Net)

As the sun beats down on a stone next to the cemetery, he raises the umbrella over his head, gazing at the cemetery of the immigrants, this “graveyard of strangers” as he calls it and begins to tell her story and how the idea for this unusual resting place came into being.

He explains that, one evening, as he was fishing at sea, three bodies were seen floating on the surface of the water. Humanity called him and he hurried to the shore, to find land for the burial of a fellow soul.

It was the beginning of his journey, a very human endeavor in which he religiously answered the human imperative to honor the dead. He decided to build a cemetery and to continue his search for corpses that he could bury, rejecting the mass burial that the authorities had implemented as a matter of ugly practicality.

He was shocked by the mass burials of immigrant bodies carried out by the municipality. He stands up to adjust his parasol. He points to a crowd of passersby as if he wanted them to support his words: “The mass grave is not suitable for the human person”, he says. There is a sharpness in his voice.

“It was a waste dump, and it would be inappropriate to bury a man with waste, without any respect to the dead,” he says.

Lion’s heart

Shams al-Din did not satisfy the people who fled the hell of their reality, which their bodies went on to experience, even after their passing. He continued despite warnings from many to abandon this work for fear of the diseases that may be transferred to him from the bodies.

His followers do not know that the sun of religion has the “heart of a lion”, and he believes that every torment is from God, as his close friend Muhammad told us, who praised his friend’s courage and steadfastness towards scenes that are, to say the least, terrifying.

“Sometimes he finds a corpse without a head and one or, even all, of the limbs missing. He finds scattered human beings here and there, and does not recoil, but dutifully, and with purpose, continues his mission. His work is mixed with sadness and sometimes tears due to the macabre sights and smells he must take in. Like the body of a Syrian woman embracing her son.”

“It was a tragic sight, in the truest sense. The mother did not leave her son even in moments of death.” To preserve their honor, he buried them together.

Paradise Earth

With the help of a group of children, he turned the cemetery into a paradise on the ground, planting roses on the graves and close to a hundred trees in order to ease the burden of collective and unknown grief.

Shams al-Din and one of the migrants in front of the cemetery (Al Jazeera Net)

The man worked with these children not only to plant trees but to instill in their small hearts the love of good and the value of humanitarian work — a work that does not require the education of schools.

Let us take the statement of Mahatma Gandhi: “You should not lose hope in humanity. It is an ocean. If a few drops in the ocean are dirty, the whole ocean will not become dirty.”

The burial of migrants for Shams al-Din and his colleagues in the Tunisian Red Crescent Society is a long-term responsibility, according to Munji Salim Dabbi, head of the Red Crescent Regional Committee in Medenine, who praised his humanitarian initiative.

He said they had collected money to buy a piece of land they would transfer to the municipality to prepare for the burial of more migrants, in a gesture to basic human decency.

Source: Aljazeera.net ( Original Content)




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