22 February 2011

Waiting for Paris. Journey to Lampedusa with the Tunisians

The Meridiana’s flight for Palermo has taken off on time at 12,30. Amongst today’s passengers there’s also Fouad Ben Maguer. He’s one of the Tunisians who arrived on the island these days. But unlike all the others he has come from Paris.

What brought him here is the frail hope that his brother may have saved himself. But it was sufficient to flip through the pages of the register of the Financial Police, to understand that the Italians didn’t know anything about the shipwreck of the 11th February. His brother Walid is therefore officially missing in the waters of the Channel of Sicily. With him, there are the lives of other 29 young boys missing from the list. It was not the conditions of the sea that killed them, nor was it imprudence, but the corvette Liberté 302 of the Tunisian navy, which that day rammed and sank the fishing boat directed to Lampedusa. 85 passengers were saved. And their profiles on facebook have become a small virtual Spoon River for the harraga who perished in the accident.

For example, on his profile, Jalel Ben Mchichi published the photos of Fouad’s brother and of another victim, Ahmed Ben Taziri, with the background of the sea behind them, and a line in French written across them: “que dieux vous protège”,may God protect you. Instead, in his album, Anoir Ben Taziri published the photos of his brother Ahmed, who had also drowned. At the same time Noussa Jerbya created the group called "Ensemble pour Anis Ben Jamaa et Ahmed Ben Taziri", two of the victims; on his page he shared the images of the protests at Seduikesh held by the families of the victims. Then there are the pages of the survivors, for example Wissen Ben Yahyaten, from whose profile it’s possible to download the video of the investigation on the shipwreck, shot by the CNN.

Eleven out of 120 passengers of the fishing boat that sank, were coming from Djerba, the city symbol of Italian tourism in Tunisia during the dictatorship. Five of them died. The corpses of Lassed Ragdel, Anis Ben Jamaa e Walid Bayaya were fished out. Two are missing: Fouad’s brother and his friend Ahmed, who ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean forever. Walid was 29 years old and Ahmed 25. They were old friends. And they had decided to leave suddenly.

Fouad knew nothing about his brother’s projects. Nor did he imagine that he would leave. He said he wasn’t thinking of France any longer. Notwithstanding the fact that, apart from Fouad, he also had his other two brothers and his father in Paris, all three of them possessing French citizenship. After the last denial from the French embassy, he had abandoned the idea of joining them. And things weren’t bad at all for him in Djerba. He had a sandwich shop close to the schools, the business was doing well, and then his wedding, for which they had already started to prepare, had also been set for the month of June. But then everyone started leaving and he didn’t want to be outdone. It all happened on the morning of February 10th. They say he took the decision while he was at the bar drinking his coffee with Ahmed and other friends. A few hours later he was on the fishing boat calling his brother on the phone and joking with him about the sudden departure. That was the last time Fouad heard his voice.

Walid, just like Ahmed and all the other boys of Djerba left for the same reason. From the outbreak of the revolution in mid December, scared by the news coming from overseas, tourists started cancelling their bookings and the tourism industry in Tunisia collapsed. Hotels, resorts and restaurants have been closed for three months, and many decided to challenge fate before the surveillance of the coast restarted at top speed.

Walid’s case is not isolated. Jafar, for example, worked as a receptionist at the Blu Club in Djerba, proof of this is that he speaks Italian perfectly and that he doesn’t sleep at the reception centre but at home of a Sicilian friend he had met four years before during the holiday period. Then there’s also Brahim that used to work as a waiter in a restaurant and Fakir who used to hire jet-skis. Guys who, paradoxically, as a result of the riots, saw the short-term prospects of their future collapse, but who nevertheless don’t feel they have betrayed the revolution.

In all, around 70 young people have arrived at Lampedusa from Djerba alone. And they all know each other, because of family or friendship ties. And the same stands for all the other towns. There are groups from Sfax, Zarzis, Medenine, Gabes, Tataouine and Mahres. There are things happening on the island which have never been seen before. For example last Sunday evening, when three young men from the reception centre, mingled with the photographers and journalists, presented themselves on the pier, waiting for their relatives to arrive on a boat that had left from Mahres. Not to mention the strange case of Zarat, a small town of 5.000 residents at 60km from Gabes, from which 200 young people arrived in the last days!

Mohamed is one of them. He’s 23 years old and he worked as a mechanic, a job he ended up doing even on board of the boat, since the engine broke down twice. The crew consisted of 30 people, all friends and relatives, who had shared the expenses for the boat, the fuel and the gps, as well as offering a lift to a fisherman who in return would be responsible for sailing the boat. This means that apart from the larger fishing boats, the departures on the smaller boats are not organized by the samsara, the intermediaries, but often are self run. This contradicts the conspiracy theories of those who had spoken about the Libyan intelligence services playing a role in the reopening of the route towards Sicily.

Anyhow, Mohamed didn’t travel alone. With him on the boat there were his brother and his uncle. They have been at Lampedusa for 11 days. Today he finally bought himself a sim card, thanks to an Italian friend’s documents, and once again using somebody else’s identity he had 400 euros sent to him by his brother who lives in Lyon with his father and the other two sisters. With this money he will be able to to buy the tickets for the three of them, himself, his brother and their uncle. They are heading for Ventimiglia where their relatives will come to pick them up by car. Indeed, the destination of 9 people out of 10 is France. And it’s not by chance.

We are in fact facing something new. There are two aspects to consider. On one hand, for the first time the people who are arriving at Lampedusa are large numbers of young people coming from the rich coasts of Tunisia, which are experiencing an economic crisis due to the lack of tourism. While the inhabitants of the poorest areas of the country are basically absent, as the young people from those areas were more involved in the revolution and are still committed to the political struggles that are leading up to the democratic transition. On the other hand we have to consider that the groups that are arriving belong to well organized communities, which have strong solidarity bonds with their diaspora in France.

This is a detail that should not be overlooked by Sarkozy. It seems as if the police at the border with Italy have circulated a letter, alerting fellow officers on the risk of infiltrations of thousands of undocumented Tunisians from the Italian reception centres on French territory. This has been criticized by the police trade union, Sgp, of the city of Cannes, who have replied back to the government by saying: “We are not here to compensate for the shortcomings of international politics”.