ZARZIS, Tunisia — Chamseddine Marzoug placed a red toy car atop an unmarked grave. Under the small mound of yellow dirt lay the sea-battered bones of a child migrant. Next to it was the grave of a woman.
“I found their bodies washed up on the beach, the child next to the woman,” Marzoug said, after spreading fresh flowers over the graves. “Perhaps, she was his mother. So out of consideration for her, I decided to bury them next to each other.”
Even as the European Union tightens its rules to prevent migrants from reaching its borders, thousands keep boarding rickety boats in search of a better life. And many still drown in the Mediterranean Sea, their bloated bodies ending up on the shores of North Africa with no family members to claim them.
Marzoug gives the migrants in death what they failed to receive in life: a recognition of their worth.
Every morning, the 52-year-old former fisherman scours the beaches of this Tunisian town for bodies. When he finds one, he puts it in a body bag. He delivers the bodies to the hospital for a medical report. Later, he washes the corpses and takes them to the graveyard — marked by a sign displayed in six languages: Cemetery for Unknown — where he has dug the graves with a spade and pickax.
Before, he said, the bodies were taken away in “a rubbish truck” and dumped “in a hole and then sand was thrown into it.”
“Now, when we bury them, we give them dignity,” said Marzoug, who is slim and sunbaked with a pepper-colored beard.
Today, there are more than 400 graves in the cemetery.
No one pays Marzoug, not the municipality or any aid group. He is motivated, he said, by outrage at the plight and treatment of the mostly African migrants. He also works out of necessity.
“Nobody really wants this job,” he explained.
Marzoug buried his first migrant 12 years ago. When he would go fishing, he would be moved by the sight of bodies washing up on the shore.
“They didn’t have any families to care for them,” he said. “So I decided to become their family.” Marzoug has five children and three grandchildren of his own.
In 2005, he cleared a portion of a trash dump on the outskirts of Zarzis. That became the cemetery. He used his earnings from fishing and, later, from driving a taxi, for the site’s upkeep, as well as for the flowers and the small toy cars.
“He’s a humanitarian,” said Mongi Slim, head of the regional Red Crescent. “Not a lot of people want to take the bodies from the sea, carry them to the hospital and then bury them.”
“The municipality doesn’t want to do it,” he added. “They don’t have the capacity.”
Last year, Marzoug buried 81 corpses. So far this year, he said, he has found 12 bodies. Stricter border policies enacted by the E.U. and African governments, as well as tens of millions of dollars spent on training and equipping the Libyan coast guard, have led to a sharp decline in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe, especially Italy.
But Marzoug is seeing more of his countrymen leaving. More than 3,000 Tunisians have reached Italy this year by jumping on smugglers’ overcrowded boats sailing from Tunisian towns like Zarzis, more than any other nationality, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Tunisia is struggling with economic and political turmoil. Unemployment, especially among youth, is soaring, particularly in the impoverished south.
“We are in a new phenomenon in Tunisia,” said Patrice Bergamini, the E.U.’s ambassador to the country. “It’s easier to move away from Tunisia’s reality than to stay on the ground and change this reality.”
Human traffickers have been increasingly using Tunisia as a starting point for voyages to Italy since Libya’s coast guard began stopping scores of boats and placing migrants in sordid detention centers.
Two of Marzoug’s sons — Firaz and Ilyes — smuggled themselves on boats to Italy and are now working in France. They didn’t tell him ahead of time, he said, because they knew he would have stopped them.
He’s convinced that his work in the cemetery prevented his sons from drowning. “I believe the bodies of the migrants I buried prayed to God that my sons would reach Europe safely,” Marzoug said with a slight smile.
But more and more Tunisians are drowning at sea. More than 100 migrants, mostly Tunisians, drowned in June after their boat pushed off from the coast.
Marzoug suspects he has buried a few Tunisians. But by the time he sees the corpses, they are so disfigured and discolored by the water, he said, that it’s impossible to determine their race and nationality. “I don’t care whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish,” he said.
On a recent morning, Marzoug was back at the beach, searching for bodies and seeking the smell of death. He visited the spot where, a few weeks earlier, he had found the headless torso of a woman. He poked around the sandbanks, looking for pieces of wood, clothes and the plastic bags that migrants use on the boats to protect their cellphones and valuables. Usually, he said, those items wash up before the bodies do.
“When migrants drown, the waves peel the clothes off the bodies,” Marzoug said. “Sometimes you find bodies with
T-shirts wrapped on their necks.”
For the next 45 minutes, he scoured the beach, including areas where it was covered in trash. “I am sure if they clean up this place, they will find more body parts,” he remarked.
On this day, he found none. But he was sure that more bodies would wash ashore before long. He had heard reports that several ships had sunk this summer with hundreds of migrants aboard. Typically, a wind-driven current pushes debris onto the shores, but that had not happened yet this year, he said.
“When this current happens, the bodies will all arrive ashore in Tunisia,” Marzoug predicted.
Back at the cemetery, there’s only one grave with a headstone. It reads: Rose-Marie, Nigeria, 27-5-2017.
On that fateful day last year, her boat capsized off the coast of Zarzis. Her boyfriend, Amadine Nosa, survived. He now lives at a dormitory run by the Red Crescent. In an interview, he said Rose-Marie had traveled the route taken by thousands of migrants — from Nigeria, through Niger, and then to Libya. In Libya, he said, Rose-Marie was held in custody by a militia involved in smuggling and forced her to prostitute herself to pay for her place on the boat to Italy.
But by the time they began the journey, she had fallen ill. When the boat started to sink, she couldn’t swim, and even had she been able to, she was too weak. “She died on the boat,” said Nosa, 33, breaking down in tears. “That’s how I lost Rose-Marie.”
With so many other victims remaining anonymous, Marzoug is lobbying local authorities for DNA testing kits to identify the dead and bring a measure of closure for their families. He’s also seeking more space for his cemetery. It is so full that many graves have bodies buried one atop another. The town’s new mayor, Mekki Laarayedh, said the municipality is looking for additional space.
These days, Marzoug feels even greater urgency — and anger — in his job. He has read about how migrants are enslaved and forced into prostitution in Libya, and he has watched the growing strength of populist political groups in Europe bent on blocking the migrants.
“These are people who were oppressed in their countries, went to Libya where they were oppressed even more, and then took a boat to their death,” Marzoug said. “When I see the graves, I feel the discrimination and the hate.”