Fury of families as Tunisia migrant drowning victims buried in secret

Some bodies remain unidentified after boat carrying 18 people from the city of Zarzis sank

Residents protest in Zarzis, in Mednine governorate, southern Tunisia, at the treatment of the remains of migrants from the city who drowned trying to reach Europe. Ghaya Ben Mbarek for The National
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Anger is driving residents of Zarzis, in southern Tunisia, on to the streets in protest, after authorities buried drowned migrants from the coastal city without informing families or attempting to identify some bodies.

Neighbourhoods across the city, in Medenine governorate, have been lit up with burning tyres as roads are blockaded.

Families of the missing say the government has done nothing to ease their anguish. Others remain missing and bodies continue to wash ashore.

A boat carrying migrants to Europe went missing on September 21 while carrying 18 people — including a child of 1.

They all came from Zarzis, a city of 78,000 residents known as a crossing point for both Tunisian and Sub Saharan African migrants.

Authorities have been accused of negligence in initial attempts to look for the missing boat — even thwarting independent efforts with misinformation — and subsequently not putting enough effort into the search for bodies.

This was compounded by bodies being buried without families being told or, in some cases, without being identified.

Zarzis city governor, Ezzedine Khelifi, told local news outlet Nawaat that they buried four bodies washed ashore who they suspected were migrants from the boat. But no DNA tests were conducted to confirm their identities.

Mr Khelifi said they did not attempt to identify the bodies because the families thought their children were still alive and in Libya.

But after outcry from residents of the city, the bodies were exhumed. One person was identified by their clothing, while the rest await DNA testing, along with other bodies from the sinking.

On Saturday, at the Suihel neighbourhood — where eight of the 18 people who died in the boat sinking came from — families raged against the lack of action.

“We have been protesting for days and no one dared to show up and talk to us … They do not care about us alive and not even when we are dead,” a woman, who declined to give her name, told The National.

Salha Lassoued, mother of Louay Abdel Karim and Mohamed Aziz Abdel Karim, who remain missing, says she is in agony without news.

“We told them that we did not hear from our kids the moment we lost contact with the boat, but they would not lift a finger for two days,” she said.

“We stayed at the port all day all night throughout those two days and their [coastguard] boats would not move out to search.”

Mrs Lassoued said even when her brother and other family members attempted to take the search operation into their own hands, they were notified by a source — who they claim was from the authorities but who has not been identified — that their children were in Libya.

“We were begging them to go out and look for our kids but it turned out they were pulling out bodies and burying them behind our backs,” Mrs Lassoued said.

So far, six of 10 bodies found by fishermen and officially retrieved by the Tunisian National Guard have been identified.

The last time a similar tragedy happened was in 2008, according to Zarzis locals, and some of the victims from then remain missing.

Zarzis natives say this feels wrong for a city renowned for its seafarers — where residents say they may as well have been born on a fishing boat.

On Friday Tunisian president Kais Saied expressed “his most sincere condolences to families of victims” and said the accident is being followed up by his office daily.

He renewed his instructions to naval forces and local authorities to intensify their efforts to find the remains of victims.

Updated: June 17, 2023, 7:32 AM