“A museum of the sea and of man”, this is how the Tunisian artist describes his house Mohsen Lihidheb: “A house for the absent. I carry in my soul what the sea brings me.” This former postman has been fighting since the 1990s for rescue the belongings of missing persons on their way to Europe. He has come to collect the jacket of a two-year-old baby among the objects returned by the tide to the beach of Zarzis, objects fallen from the ships that shipwreck between the Tunisian ports and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
“Every time I find one of these objects, I feel a mix between compassion and a lot of anger. I pick them up, clean them and keep them in my house, it is a form of respect and solidarity with the victims of immigration policies”, recounts. The jacket he found on the Elbibane beach “was that of a girl from a family of harraga“. In Tunisiapeople who cross borders are called harraga, which literally means “burn the borders”. “I was a girl who had not enjoyed life yet, I have put that jacket on a tree trunk and I have paraded it through Zarzis, as in a procession. I have left it in my house as a space of peace and sleep for all the victims. I keep the memory of each of the victims whose objects the sea brings me,” confesses Mohsen.
Mohsen Lihidheb: “The waves have brought me shoes, clothes, messages… I keep the memory of each of the victims”
On the beaches of Zarzis, near the border with Libyathere are the installations that Mohsen has created with found objects: “The waves have brought me shoes, clothes, messages that have been sent. What is happening is a form of mass destruction. My art fights against this collective forgetting of the migrants who are the victims of current migration policies”.
The artist denounces the necropolitics practiced against the people of the global south, the control of people through death, in an era defined by accelerated mobility of people and goods and by the impact of social networks. If at a virtual level all young people are connected, many young people from the South find themselves locked up in their place of origin due to the prohibition of mobility, due to immigration policies.
Mohsen has created more than 400 artistic installations on the beaches of Zarzis. “Seeing these installations, people don’t forget them, and thus they don’t shut up what happens. I have more than 600 bottles with messages to God, to the sea, calls for help. Once I found a bottle with a desperate message from a young man who lived in northern Tunisia. Later I sent him the bottle with the message by mail, later he invited me to his wedding and once there it was not easy to explain my presence there; he was not a relative, nor a friend,” he explains.
insist that the objects brought by the sea must be understood and defended: “They are the memory of the people. I found shoes and clothes, and I was sure that they belonged to the migrants because they arrived right after the news of the shipwrecks. I built the facilities with these shoes to denounce my anger at this injustice against people poor”. Mohsen erects the facilities together with migrants who have arrived in Tunisia and with children: “Everyone is harraga“, he defends. “It is the very history of humanity.”
The cemetery of the unknown on the border with Libya
A few minutes from Mohsen’s house is the Cemetery of the Unknowns. Chamseddine Marzoug he was a fisherman in Zarzis when he requested the support of the local authorities to open a cemetery for people who have died trying to reach Europe: “The European Union, instead of protecting borders, should protect people. We, the fishermen of Zarzis, try to save people whose boats are in danger and give a decent burial to those who have died. They are racist crimes”. He explains that the young people who were on these boats have tried many times to travel through regulatory channels, but their visas have been denied. Chamseddine says that even his wife left Zarzis with the children without warning after several failed attempts to get visas to go to France, where her daughters live.
However, there are European companies with facilities in Zarzis: a hill separates the Cemetery of the Unknownsof those who took the boat and never arrived, from a salt farm in the hands of the French company Cotusal.
Chamseddine explains that the price the company pays for a ton of salt is the same as in colonial times. Meanwhile, eating fish in the port of Zarzis itself can reach around 10 euros per person, when the salary of many port workers does not exceed 60 euros per month.
Next to the beaches there is a ship graveyard, reminiscent of failed voyages of those who left. It has been a journey without arrival for Djalila’s two children, as her mother defines them. They wanted to get to France to see their partners, but the visa had been repeatedly denied, until the young people decided to take the boat together with other twenty-somethings from the port of Sfax. For six months Djalila had no news of them, until she recognized them in images published in the press because of their tattoos. Until today, Djalila continues to fight to get a visa and be able to go to Italy to clarify the conditions in which her children died in 2019, since the information she has received is contradictory: “Why have I lost my children? Dozens of families have lost loved ones because of a piece of paper. God says that the Earth is for everyone, but the racists want to divide it. I’m not going to stop until I find out the truth about my children.”
Chamseddine Marzoug: “Does Europe want the Mediterranean to be the largest cemetery in the world?”
With funds from the Zarzis community, attempts are being made to take DNA samples in order to identify people. At the same time, the trajectories of the abuses suffered by the people who have survived the detention centers for migrants in Libya are reconstructed. Despite the denial of visas, Chamseddine denounces the corruption that prevails in the consulates, where fees are charged for visa applications, even if they are systematically denied.
“Does Europe want the Mediterranean to be the largest cemetery in the world?” he asks us as he leaves Zarzis. The forced disappearances in the Mediterranean have created a collective movement in Tunisiawhich brings together dozens of people affected by the disappearance of their relatives and who want to know where their children are and demand responsibilities from both the Tunisian and European authorities, accusing the current migration policies of the disappearance of their children.
*Report made within the Islamofobia amb ulls de dones project of the Institut de les Desigualtats, with the support of the Barcelona City Council.