On 21 September 2022, two women, a one-year-old infant, and 15 other people, the oldest of whom was a 25 years old, embarked on a journey from the coast of Zarzis. Having no news of them, two days after their departure, the families alerted the Tunisian, Italian and Maltese authorities and the civil search and rescue fleet.

In response to the passivity of the national authorities, following demands of the inhabitants of Zarzis to begin search and rescue operations, the Association of Fishermen undertook five autonomous search operations.

On 2 October, the shipwreck was confirmed. The body of a woman, Malek, was washed up on the beach of Djerba. The photos of other corpses which had arrived along the Tunisian coast began to be shared. During this time, some of the bodies would be buried in the Zarzis Cemetery without the authorities having first undertaken DNA tests, also the corpse of a young girl was (mis-)identified as an “unknown marine animal”. Without DNA testing, many families were unable to give their loved ones a dignified burial.

On 12 October, also the fears of the family of one of the missing, Aymen, were confirmed. The family thought that they had recognised their loved one thanks to the clothes that he was wearing – his identification was confirmed by a DNA test after exhuming his body. On that day, seven bodies were identified. 

After several days, the city of Zarzis was shaken by the protests of the families and those in solidarity with them. Under the slogan “Zarzis wants the truth”, the people of the city entered a general strike called by civil society associations, led by the Tunisian General Labor Union and the Association of Fishermen. In protest marches and sit-ins, protestors demanded the truth about the disappearance of the bodies of their fellow citizens. They also condemned the unwritten law, according to which bodies found at sea are buried without inviting families to identify them or to carry out any DNA identification. 

These protests in Zarzis also highlight the suffering that Europe’s externalised borders produce in Tunisia and elsewhere in the ‘Global South’.

Without safe routes to migrate, people have to continue to cross the Mediterranean Sea on precarious boats like the one that sank with the 18 individuals from Zarzis. 

Pictures: Felici Rosa