More Africans are making their way to Europe across the Mediterranean. If you are stranded on the beach in Zarzis, you want to get away.
Noureddine Gantri would be faster on foot. When the Tunisian journalist drives through his hometown of Zarzis, he has to stop his car on the edge of the main street every few meters. Migrants who move through the city of 80,000 people know him, many are protagonists in his new documentary project.
Even before the revolution, the 38-year-old began to document what constitutes the idyllic city between endless olive groves and kilometers of beaches: migration. Gantri used to live in Trier for a long time, where his parents emigrated to in the 1970s. He took experience from Germany and became something like the city clerk.
Whatever happens in Zarzis, the Tunisian places a video on the Facebook page of his “Zarzis TV. The fact that the nonprofit broadcaster only broadcasts on Facebook is certainly not a disadvantage. For the Tunisian youth, the Internet is like Facebook. Even if you have no credit left, you can call up Facebook on your mobile phone. The social network has negotiated this service with many African telephone providers, thereby creating a monopoly on communication. The fact that Noureddine Gantri meets friends on the street makes him almost an exception. Many young Zarzizians no longer know who to meet in one of the many cafés. Your friends have emigrated. There are probably as many young men from southern Tunisia living in the north of Paris as in the elongated coastal oasis south of the holiday island of Djerba. Gantri’s documentary is about the newcomers who come across the Libyan-Tunisian border on foot 80 kilometers away: women and men from West Africa, just like the young Tunisians in search of a better life.
The talks between the migrants and the filmmaker are similar to those between Tunisian peers. When is a boat going to Lampedusa again? Who left? Where are there jobs? Nobody asks for news in Zarzis.
In Zarzis, like in many southern Tunisian towns, time seems to stand still somehow. Only those who leave have a future. Gantri wants to stay and build a better future for his three children in Tunisia. That’s why he messes with everyone in his short films. With the teachers of the state schools, who in the afternoon give parents extra tuition from their wallets or beat students; with the mayor, who opens a café under the name of his wife; with the foreign journalists, who all write the story about the migrants’ cemetery without doing any research.
Despite the successes for which Tunisia is repeatedly praised as the beacon of the Arab Spring, the province shows that the cultural revolution has not yet started. The ubiquitous corruption takes young people’s breath away.
“I can’t breathe” was written on the walls of a house in French in 2011. This related to the strict family hierarchy, to the fact that a father can still go to the police if the pubescent children don’t do what he is asked of them to do; on the blows of the teachers on the fingers holding a smartphone in the afternoon, where they discover a paradise, in Tunis or Europe. For many, Tunisia is just a stage. Most come to Tripoli in the back of a pick-up truck or under the tarpaulin of a Libyan vegetable truck via Agadez in Niger and the desert oasis Sebha in southern Libya. There you choose one of the many smuggler networks on Facebook and wait for the departure.
But since the new war in Libya between the government in Tripoli and the field marshal Haftar, whose fighters dominate the east and south of the country, the logistics chain, on which many earn money – militias, freight forwarders, local gangs. Then there is the corona crisis. Many of the Libyan middlemen have remained stuck on their human goods. The fighting means that they cannot bring the migrants to the boats and collect money from them.
Libya is one thing for migrants in times of war and corona: torture. The kidnappers send the videos of the ill-treatment to the victims’ relatives, including information about the ransom transfer via Western Union or the so-called Hawala network, a payment system via middlemen. In central Libyan Mizda, a group of foremen from Bangladesh killed their kidnapper and torturer in a melee. His family called a militia that stormed the migrants’ prison with heavy weapons.
“Libya has become too dangerous, I fled to Zarzis after such a massacre,” says Moussa from Guinea-Bissau. The 22-year-old has been on the road for five years, climbing three times on the 15-meter-high fences that separate Spain’s enclaves Ceuta and Mellila from Morocco. “The barbed wire is razor-sharp, hardly anyone can make it without centimeter-deep cuts and hardly anyone can make it higher than four meters,” he says. This was followed by three attempts by boat, one brought him back by the Algerian Navy, then by Libyan militias. The smugglers in the Sahara in Mali were worse than being caught so close to the destination, Moussa says. In March 2015, shortly after the start of his trip, he was taken from an interurban bus. “You do not know whether it is Islamists, smugglers or simply young people who use torture videos to extort money from the relatives of travelers passing through. All groups are networked with each other,” says Moussa.
The amount of the ransom for the release depends on the nationality. Eritreans pay the most in Libya because they have many relatives in Europe. Moussa had to pay $300 in Mali.
After the last failed attempt to cross from Libya by boat to Lampedusa, Moussa spent a few weeks in a prison in the Libyan port city of Zauwia. With money raised by his parents in his home country, he was able to buy himself free: $400 ended up directly at a security guard. He teamed up with other migrants and in early December they paid a Libyan taxi driver a total of 30€ for the trip to Abukamash, ten kilometers from the Tunisian border. After a twelve hour walk, Moussa and six comrades-in-arms met a Tunisian army patrol. Without asking questions, the soldiers took her to the UN refugee agency in Zarzis.
Moussa now wants to be hired as captain for the upcoming trip, since he can handle the compass and outboard. “I know that we actually have no chance of getting to Italy with over 100 people on an eight-meter-long inflatable boat and only two air chambers. I will head for container or rescue ships as soon as they are in sight,” he says.