Tunisian activist in Zarzis: We adhere to truth and justice for our drowned children

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Tunisia / Adel Al Thabiti / Anatolia

** Ali Kniss, a civil activist and a member of the “Local Commission for Truth and Justice”, told Anadolu Agency:
The state did not help us search for the victims of the sunken boat. We found the bodies of victims in a cemetery of unidentified persons and a hospital, and there are still 10 missing.
The authorities dealt with us with violence, arrests, tear gassing schools, nurseries and homes, and intimidating citizens.
– We have withstood 60 days, and we will not give up knowing the truth about what happened, and holding those responsible for concealing information and bodies accountable, and there are suspicions about another crime committed at sea.
– We refuse to exploit the issue by those who have political problems with President Said.

For more than sixty days, the city of Zarzis, in the state of Medenine, southeastern Tunisia, has been witnessing a protest movement to reveal the circumstances of the sinking of an irregular immigration boat carrying 18 of the city’s youth in the Mediterranean in late September.

In Zarzis, 540 km south of Tunis, the “Local Commission for Truth and Justice” was formed to frame the social movement and follow up on the tragedy between the “Behar Association” (independent), the Tunisian General Labor Union in the city, and Ali Kniss, a representative of civil society.

“We have entered sixty days of movement since losing contact with the boat on September 21,” said Kniss, a member of the committee, a civil activist and a researcher in sociology, in an interview with Anadolu Agency by phone.

He continued, “Zarzis lived on a protest movement that escalated from the authority’s demand to search for the missing to search for the missing with self-efforts through the Al-Bahar Development Association and the citizens of Zarzis.”

He added, “The sailors carried out 6 major sea excursions and combed land and sea… We did not see the search from the state. The operations were carried out with the efforts of the sailors. We sailed across the sea and land with motorbikes and large fishing boats, and later an extrajudicial burial of (victims) took place within the framework of the law.”

He explained that through “a self-investigative investigation, we found pictures that showed that 4 graves are in the African Gardens cemetery (especially for the unidentified victims of migration operations), along with other pictures that were taken of bodies found by sailors on the beaches.”

And he continued, “We called on the authorities to open the graves, and indeed, it was confirmed after opening 4 graves that they were of young men who were in the boat. The search continued, and other photos were found that were taken by citizens, and each photo contains a corpse.”

And he added, “We noticed that there was a process of concealing corpses, and by following up the registers of the dead in the regional hospital in Zarzis, we revealed that there were corpses that were transported without specifying a destination. We found them in Gabes Hospital (140 km northwest of Zarzis) and others that we did not find, and there are still 10 missing persons.”

** Increased movement

Regarding the protests, Kniss said, “The movement went on to continuous vigils in front of the delegation of Zarzis (the headquarters of a local administration), a general strike on October 18, and a march that roamed the streets of the city.”

He added, “The slogans of the October 18th march were clear, demanding that the bodies of the missing be found, holding accountable all those involved in burial crimes outside the framework of the law, and accelerating burial without conducting genetic analysis and informing the families.”

He continued, “The operations to conceal information and the bodies indicate that another crime was committed at sea… There is a general opinion in Zarzis that the boat did not sink naturally,” indicating the possibility that it was deliberately sunk.

He stated that “a search (investigation) was opened late and is still slow, and families and witnesses were heard.”

Kniss said, “The investigating judge undertook to open graves in the African Gardens cemetery, and out of 28 graves, 6 were opened, then a protest took place, and 10 others were opened, then searches in other hospitals and there are other cemeteries outside Zarzis for the unidentified.”

He continued, “The movement turned into a general strike on November 4 (last), and a major march raised 3 demands: finding the bodies, holding those involved accountable, and convening a special ministerial council (the issue) in Zarzis.”

He added, “The movement is developing and escalating, and the authority’s response is itself tainted by lies, fallacy, and fraud,” he said.

** Happy call

On November 18, on the eve of the Francophone Summit on the Tunisian island of Djerba, President Kais Said called on the people of Zarzis to “have a little patience,” stressing that “the truth will come very soon.”

However, Kniss considered that “the only reality we have seen is police violence, arrests, tear gassing of schools, nurseries and homes, and intimidation of citizens.”

He added, “We were in a peaceful march on Friday (November 18) a few kilometers away from Qantara (leading to Djerba), with the participation of crowds of families and families of the missing. Force was used, and arrests took place on Saturday and Sunday, and the city witnessed chaos, as the security forces targeted citizens’ homes, shops, and schools.” And incubators with tear gas.

He stressed that “the issue is not a security issue, but is related to the human right to a dignified burial and to hold a dignified and decent funeral, and this has been violated, and we demand truth and justice for the martyrs.”

And he added, “We are Tunisian citizens, and officials receive their wages from Tunisian taxes, and the state is required to provide clear answers about what is happening now.”

And he continued, “Continuing with the security solution is a disastrous choice in which the state bears its responsibility.. We are continuing with our civil option and going towards the general strike (on Thursday and Friday), and we have not yet seen any serious communication from the authority.”

Kniss stated, “It was agreed before last Friday’s move that the Minister of Interior (Tawfiq Sharaf al-Din) would come to Zarzis on Thursday (last) to present facts about what happened to the boat, then a ministerial council. The hall was secured, but he was absent at the last moment.”

And he continued, “As a result, we went on a march to Djerba to make our voice heard, but we were confronted with extreme violence, gassing and arrests, and we recorded cases of suffocation of 169 women, including 6 pregnant women, an infant, and a single man.”

** Political exploitation

Regarding the Zarzis movement’s rejection of any interference by parties in the case, Kniss said, “We refuse to use the blood of our sons as a bridge for those who have political problems with the president.”

Since July 25, 2021, Tunisia has been witnessing an acute political crisis, when Said began imposing exceptional measures that Tunisian forces consider a “coup” while other forces see them as “a correction of the course of the 2011 revolution.”

Kniss continued, “We will not accept any trading in the blood of our children. We succeeded in framing the civil movement through the Al-Bahar Association and the Tunisian General Union of Labor and Activists, and we reject any politicization of the issue.”

As for their refusal of political or civil forces expressing solidarity with the cause, he replied: “Not exactly in this way. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (independent) and civil organizations came, and we are open, but the trading process is rejected.”

** Condolences are in our house only

Regarding the fate of the protests in light of the disruption of dialogue with the authority, Kniss said: “Our demand is truth and justice.”

He added, “The movement has escalated, and the authority’s treatment is the same as marginalization, degradation, use of violence, and attacks on safe houses and schools.”

And he added, “The authority must assume its responsibility and come to talk to the people. We are a funeral home, and in our customs and traditions, whoever wants to console people comes to their home, and we will not move anywhere.”

Kniss revealed, “We refused to go to Carthage Palace (after receiving an invitation from President Said).

** Another crime

Regarding the activists’ hint of an official party’s involvement in the sinking of the boat, Kniss said, “This is what we said from day one, and we demand the truth and a serious and responsible investigation to find out what happened to our children, and there are great doubts.”

Knis concluded, “Concealing information and corpses and burying them in the cover of darkness without informing the families proves that another crime has been committed.”

Since the beginning of 2022, the phenomenon of irregular migration has been growing in Tunisia due to the difficult economic conditions, as well as the ongoing armed conflicts in other African countries.

The number of missing persons in the Mediterranean since the beginning of this year has reached 544, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (non-governmental).

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