Who Should Care for the Border Dead? Struggles of Responsibility Over a Tunisian Cemetery of Unknown Persons



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Guest post by Valentina Zagaria. Valentina is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her thesis, based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the south-eastern Tunisian town of Zarzis, explores how dignity, responsibility and belonging are shaped and curtailed by different migratory projects. This post is based on a recent article focusing on the efforts to practically and discursively ‘fix’ a cemetery of unknown migrants in Tunisia. The article is part of a special issue on border deaths edited by Antoine Pécoud and Marta Esperti in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. This is the sixth post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

“I am their family”: In Tunisia, one man’s mission to bury the migrants who die at sea. (Los Angeles Times)

In Tunisia, a Red Crescent volunteer fights to give dignified burials to the migrants who wash up in Zarzis. (author’s translation) (Le Monde)

‘Jesus of Zarzis’ has buried 72 drowned migrants: “It is not their fault that they are buried here. It’s your fault.” (author’s translation) (Politiken)

The cemetery of unknown persons in the summer of 2017, before local and international volunteers and activists started periodically organising to clean and upkeep the terrain. July 2017, Zarzis. Photo by: Valentina Zagaria\n

These are but some of the headings that appear when typing “Zarzis cemetery migrants” into Google. The list of hits continues for several pages, a cascade of articles with similar titles in English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, French, Danish, as well as links to news videos, documentaries, and crowdfunding campaigns aimed at raising awareness and money for a cemetery in south-eastern Tunisia hosting the bodies of people on the move who died in the Mediterranean sea. Despite all this attention, however, it took several years for the cemetery’s conditions to improve even marginally, while efforts at making bigger changes to identification and burial procedures are still ongoing. Although border deaths the world over have never been as mediatised and politicised as they are today, access to safe and legal travel across national frontiers for all is far from being on any government’s agenda. Steps taken by authorities and international organisations to count, name, and bring news – let alone justice – to the families of the deceased are partial and slow moving at best.

As I was told by one of the many journalists I met during my two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Zarzis (2015-2017), the cemetery’s is nevertheless “a small story with great symbolic potential”. From the summer of 2015, as Europe faced what the media termed at first the ‘migration’ and later the ‘refugee crisis’, the cemetery, mostly chronicled through the hero-narrative evident in the above titles, started gaining in fame. The inhabitants of Zarzis, however, similarly to the inhabitants of many Mediterranean coastal towns, had been finding and burying the victims of the European Union’s border for decades – this liquid border having turned deadly for irregularised migrants almost immediately after its establishment in the early 1990s (see the Deaths at the Borders Database).

For years the fishermen of Zarzis, who work in the waters between Libya and Lampedusa (Italy’s southern-most island), have been at the forefront of rescuing migrant boats in distress – despite having been criminalised for it by Italian authorities – and are often the first to sight the dead. Throughout Ben Ali’s dictatorship, fishermen and other locals who found anonymous human remains at sea or on the shore became part of a chain of procedures, together with municipality employees, coast guards, firefighters, doctors, Red Crescent volunteers, and national guards, that eventually led to burials in a plot on the outskirts of town. This land belonged to the municipality of Zarzis, and had previously been used as a landfill. Local authorities claim that after having had difficulties burying anonymous persons in the town’s small, neighbourhood run cemeteries, this was the only space they had available. This initially make-shift cemetery became permanent with time as deaths in the Mediterranean increased, but it remained un-signalled for a decade, and still hasn’t been enclosed by a fence. Due mainly to a lack of resources, information about the dead bodies that might have aided future identifications was not systematically taken and archived, while DNA samples were rarely mandated by the prosecutor.

Tunisian, Italian and Mexican activists working to fix the cemetery after a storm. May 2018, Zarzis. Photo by: Valentina Zagaria\n

The question of how and where to bury the border dead came to the fore especially after the 2011 revolution, as Tunisian citizens were then able to have a more open discussion about how this was being addressed by the authorities. Everyone involved agreed that the way in which these dead persons were being buried was neither dignified nor respectful. Yet the cemetery of unknown persons was in the eyes of many in Zarzis part of a broader set of inequalities and injustices, and thus the question of who should take on the task of ‘fixing’ it was far from being straightforward or politically neutral. Local authorities recognised a responsibility to bury despite often lacking the means. It is ‘Europe’, however, that is understood as being responsible for their deaths, and it is therefore seen as the actor that should get involved to make burials more dignified and to help with identifications. In the absence of an official EU delegation in Zarzis, though, local actors turned to international organisations to seek help, and later, as they started travelling to Zarzis in bigger numbers, to journalists, researchers, video-makers, photographers, and activists. These foreigners were welcomed by fishermen and Red Crescent volunteers who, aiming to improve the situation, facilitated their access to the terrain and provided them with their own viewpoints on the violence that had been and was still unfolding in the Mediterranean.

It is the story of Chamseddine, an ex-fisherman who over the years became deeply involved in these burials, that particularly captured the attention of European and North American journalists, who almost unanimously focused on his personal engagement to relate the cemetery. Told through one man’s charitable commitment to provide dignity to those who died at the European Union’s liquid border, the cemetery was ‘fixed’ as a place epitomising both the deadly effects of migration policies in Europe, and the compassion of simple citizens in the face of its horror. It is also through relations with Chamseddine that different actors started organising to materially ‘fix’ the cemetery, by launching the crowdfunding campaigns mentioned above and by travelling to Zarzis to plant trees, donate body bags, and clear the terrain of rubbish. Yet, perhaps precisely because border deaths have come to symbolise the moral failures of the European Union, this cemetery proved so difficult to practically ‘fix’ in spite of the mediatic platform and foreign interest it attracted. This particular cemetery was conceptually ‘fixed’ through the story of Chamseddine’s commitment, and was narrated as a hopeful story, emphasising its “symbolic potential”. On the ground, however, ‘fixing’ it involved addressing fundamentally political questions of different scales – local, national, and transnational – of responsibility for the care of others.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Zagaria, V. (2020). Who Should Care for the Border Dead? Struggles of Responsibility Over a Tunisian Cemetery of Unknown Persons. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/who-should-care [date]

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Border deaths
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