Smuggled: Part #two

It was terribly warm the day I saw for the first time 800 migrants landing at the harbour of Palermo, in Northern Sicily. According to the Coast Guard’s accounts, they had departed from Zuwara in Libya three days earlier, on board of four different dinghies, and rescued 100 miles further by military vessels operating under Frontex, the European agency responsible for the control and secutiry of our borders.

I remember the composure of the officials who had conducted that rescue operation: A crew of about fifteen Norwegians on board of a colossal boat named SIEM PILOT. Their uniforms- of an impersonal dark green- contrasted the vibrant orange of the ship. So tall, fair skinned and graceful in their way of communicating with Sicilian officials, they looked like perfect robotic machines. Not something we see everyday in Palermo, I thought.

The 800 immigrants, who were given immediate medical and general assistance by volunteers on the ground, were walking exhausted in a well-ordered line as instructed by officials, wobbling from one medical installment to the next. The whole scene was overwhelming to take in. One instance caught my attention more than anything else though: No one was crying. Not even children. I found it bizarre because, I am certain, I would be at least crying if I saw my friend, or worst, mother and father drown few hours earlier.

How much pain can a human being experience before they stop emotions from coming in anymore? That’s something I wonder about more and more often these days.

As I recall that landing, the bus I’m travelling on keeps bumping over the unpaved road. It’s Friday 13 November, and I left Tunis eight hours ago, directed to Medenine, southeast of the country. The last four days in the capital were a never-ending succession of cancelled appointments with officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs, trying to figure out how to be granted permission to conduct interviews about illegal migration and smuggling. Even those who did agree to meet me didn’t turn out to be as helpful as hoped. “You need a special permission to ask these questions to representatives of the institutions”, or “This is not the right office for the permissions you need” and “Chances anyone will actually read your request are extremely low, Madame”, were the only answers I was given.

The bus finally stops in Medenine at 10pm. It’s an easy walk from the bus stop to the hotel I booked for the night, ready to jump on a taxi and drive to Zarzis the next morning, where I will interview local staff of the humanitarian organization Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), and migrants. As I sit on the bed and turn on the TV, still dazed from the journey and starving, the voice of the news man in the background suddenly catches my attention: It’s the live announcement of more than 100 people killed in Paris by gunmen and bomb blasts. I still didn’t know those deaths would become a symbol of the Islamist ghost that’s been lingering upon our heads for months. An angry ghost with a black flag evoked by decades of Western capitalist colonialism.

Here I am, closer than ever to the Libyan border, fearing for those I love in a European capital, the city I was born in. This is the new war, I catch myself thinking, where geographic boundaries don’t matter anymore, and the fear for a global conflict is more grounded than ever.

Zarzis is a small city sitting on the southeastern coast of Tunisia, more commonly known for its vicinity to popular tourist hub Djerba. Until a couple of years ago, its economy used to depend almost solely on fishing and tourism during the summer season. Today, after several terrorist attacks and the interruption of economic communication with welathier neighboring Libya, the city knows no tourism. The once tourist district- Sangho- is now a collection of practically empty hotels, restaurants, and disco clubs, including the one I’m staying in.

Zarzis has become known for the increasing rate of sub-Saharan immigrants living and working there, though illegally, since the civil conflict in Libya began in 2011 bringing many to flee either on boats run by smugglers and directed to Europe, or on foot to nearby Tunisia. Quite differently from those who manage to walk to the country via land, many are also reaching the shores of Zarzis by sea from Libya, either rescued by Tunisian Maritime authorities or, more frequently, by local fishermen. It is the case of those migrants who, in spite of having payed a considerable amount of Libyan dinars to smugglers, and survived unspeakable atrocities with the aim of reaching Europe, failed in their attempt and were brought back almost to starting point. I like to call it their personal limbo.

I meet Mouhamed Trabilsi on an early sunny afternoon at the local bureau of the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), in front of the fish market in central Zarzis. He is a remarkably tall young man, extremely proud of his job and impeccable in the way of describing the reality of illegal migration in his town. He has been a volunteer at the TRC since 2011, helping the organization take care of the whole immigration process, from reception of migrants to medical and social assistance. He explains what the TRC does together with the organization’s chauffer Chams-eddine Marzoyg, at the café nearby the bureau.

We are not the only humanitarian organization helping with migrants in Zarzis. There’s UNHCR and IOM for example. However, unlike others, we do not get any financial support from either the government or other centralized body. Everything we do, from paying for accommodation for migrants to providing medical and social assistance, is self-funded. Like us, most of the other men and women you see here are volunteers.

Mouhamed further tells me that once migrants reach Tunisia, either by sea or land, they are first registered by the TRC, which conducts basic medical examinations. Those categorized as asylum seekers are then directed to the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) which later carries out interviews to either accept asylum requests or turn them down. Those who, on the contrary, are not registered as asylum seekers or refugees are asked by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) whether they wish to return to their home country or stay in Tunisia. In the former case, IOM takes care of the repatriation process. In the latter, the TRC is often the only organization migrants can rely on for further assistance.

Note: Tunisia still lacks a legal framework concerning refugees and asylum. In 2011, Tunisian authorities signed a cooperation agreement with UNHCR for the drafting of a national asylum law. UNHCR is still assisting the government in the finalization of the text, which was slowed down both by the political transition which led to the adoption of a new Constitution in January 2014 and of a new Parliament in December of the same year (l’Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple) and by the terrorist attacks in 2015. UNHCR continues to be the sole entity conducting refugee status determination (RSD) in the country. In addition, the UN Agency is responsible for training Tunisian immigration officers on border management. For all these reasons, UNHCR is regarded as the most authoritative with regard to migration of all other humanitarian organizations present in the country, such as IOM and the TRC.

Mouhamed, Chams-eddine and the volunteers at the TRC have helped many recover from the trauma of smuggling and start a new life in Zarzis. Despite the presence of UNHCR and IOM in the territory of Medenine- which includes Zarzis- it is reasonable to claim migrants and refugees would not find the support they do if TRC staff wasn’t there to voluntarily make the difference. The living proof of this, are the men I met and the stories they shared with me.

Why are you here?

is the first question I asked them all at the beginning of each interview. It is also the first question officials ask immigrants at landing harbors in Sicily, after they get rescued by European vessels and are brought to land. Their answers always strike me for being exceptionally similar. They sound mechanical at times, as if they did not come from a human being, but from a well-programmed computer. They know by now that Europe has adopted a number of well-defined categories to make sense of these lost humanities to help. They know by now that some categories are preferable than others in order to receive help. None of these boxes though includes the words “human being” or “man” and “woman”. They are either seekers of protection or seekers of jobs, in which case in most cases, they are not welcome. There is no category for instance which includes the possibility that a man or a woman is worth of our protection from the hunger caused by lack of employment at home.

Sidu, from Senegal, entered Tunisia from Libya crossing the border in 2014. Before that, he had been smuggled through Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to Libya, paying the correspondent of approximately 3,000 Euros. Once in Libya, he was kidnapped by smugglers and kept in an apartment in Tripoli for one month of violence, both physical and psychological, finally escaping thanks to the help of a man linked to the organization who drove him to the border with Tunisia. It is still unclear to me why this man should have accepted to take such a risk for Sidu, who did not seem willing to explain this in further details.

I had just left the apartment I was renting in Tripoli when two Libyans took me, bit me up, and brought me to this place. There were many other men like me in there, and some of them were badly injured or dead. It was a nightmare, I could not understand what on earth they might want from me. I had no money, and more importantly I had not expressed the intention to be smuggled to Europe, like other migrants often do. When I arrived in Libya, I only wanted to find a job and send money back to my family in Senegal. After a month, this man offered his help and drove me close to the border with Tunisia. I didn’t believe it when I first set foot in Ben Guerdane.
Where they violent with you?

I ask.

Are you joking? Of course they were, everything they do includes violence. These people have no feelings. We are like any other good to them.

He replies, with his eyes looking down and his left leg trembling nervously as he speaks. A long silence follows, interrupted at times by the sound of Sidu’s nervous cough and the voices of men selling fish in the street.

Adama Cisse fled the second civil war in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. He was smuggled first to Nigeria, then through Niger, and finally reached Tripoli. Unlike Sidu, Adama left his hometown and family to seek refuge in Europe, afraid that no African country could truly guarantee him a life free of corruption, war, violence or hunger. As he reached Tripoli, he started collecting money, but the civil war made life too dangerous. Therefore he began asking other immigrants how to contact smugglers to go to Europe.

I could not trust anyone there. Soon after my arrival, I started fearing for my life. They are carrying a war without rules, it’s total anarchy. Maybe you will get shot while shopping, or on your way to work, or in your own house . I left Côte d’Ivoire because I wasn’t safe, but Tripoli was much worse. I had to leave that place, at any cost.

A local taxi driver he’d become friend with gave Adama a mobile number to phone to speak with smugglers. One week later, he payed two of them 1200 Libyan dinars (approximately 1300 Euros) and was driven, together with other immigrants, to an isolated farm near Sabha. They were kept in that farm for a month before the boat journey. Their dinghy left at 6am, and 23 hours later they were rescued by fishermen and brought to Zarzis. He lost six of his friends in the journey, unable to rescue them because, like the majority of migrants who travel on dinghies, he cannot swim.

I thought it was over for me. After all those months, after the tortures- the fear I went through- I was simply going to disappear at sea.

Bassur Gasama from Senegal, and Dousu Cheick Isla from Burkina Faso share an apartment today with Adama. What they also share with him is their experience with smugglers. First from home to Zuwara, and then at sea, finally rescued and brought to Zarzis. Both abused by their smugglers, they now have to carry an indelible mark for the rest of their life. Dousu, however, hasn’t lost his ability to dream:

Zarzis is much better than Zuwara. My dream is still to go to Europe, maybe Italy or Germany, and become a professional footballer. I will not stop trying, but I will only travel on good boats in the future. No more dinghies.
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