The light bulb flickers and goes out, plunging Mokthar and his cousins into the longest night of their lives. Tonight they leave for Lampedusa. They are from Tataouine, the largest city in the Tunisian desert. Seated around a shared plate of couscous, curled up on themselves, they are five in all, from the same neighbourhood, and the same family. Five leaving tonight, Inshallah. “It’s win-win, or … lose-lose,” acknowledges Mokthar, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. In the darkness of the dining room, he puts together his things — a bottle of water, some dry biscuits — and goes out into the street.
The smuggler has arranged to meet them at 8 pm, at the Place du Café de Paris. They follow the road from Djerba to Zarzis, stopping at the third mosque on the right. Under the arcades, the smuggler waits, a cup of filter coffee steaming on the table. The atmosphere is warm; the men shake hands. Before, the smuggler was an octopus fisherman. His hair is bleached with sea salt, and his features seem carved into the surface of his face. Tonight, he will have the lives of 50 passengers in his hands.
Mokthar and his cousins follow the smuggler through one of the quarter’s unlit passageways. From this point on, phones are switched off. The group is led quietly to a half-finished house on the seaside. The entrance is littered with concrete blocks and cement, rats crawling between the tiles. And once inside, two large rooms hold 40 ‘haraga’ — literally ‘burners’ — the name given to those attempting the passage to Italy. ‘Burners’ because, before leaving, the haraga destroy all their official documents — papers of no use or relevance on the other side of the sea.
Huddled against each other on two orange banquettes, the men wait. Two, three, four hours. “I did warn the others that the trip would be the beginning of a lot of shit,” says Mokthar.”This is nothing — it’s once we arrive in Italy that it gets complicated.” Mokthar knows something about this; he has already made the journey long ago, living 29 years in Paris without papers. “I came back to Tunisia for my daughter’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony, she is making her way in life… I still have some of mine to make. That’s why I’m leaving again.” Beside him sits his cousin, Hamza. At 26, Hamza has known nothing besides “bullshit, with this dog Ben Ali and his whore Leila. There’s no work, never any work, always sitting in cafes with nothing to do. The only thing I want to do is work,” he says. Hamza doesn’t smoke. At midnight, he lights his fifth cigarette of the evening.
A breath of air rushes into the house beside the sea. A voice on the phone, the signal is given — this is it, it’s time to leave. The scouts patrolling Zarzis’ long beaches have not noticed anything unusual. There are no patrols, no police or army to stand in the way of the departure. The military is currently too busy monitoring the Ras Jedir border crossing between Tunisia and Libya, embroiled in civil war.
“If only they had a stronger presence there,” moans Maitre Ourimi, a Zarzis lawyer who represents the mothers of haragas lost at sea. “Without the remains, it is difficult for them to grieve,” he explains. For the past month, he has been watching the shoreline from his garden every night. “I’ve tried calling the police. It’s rare, but sometimes they organise a few patrols in pick-up trucks. It’s not enough; the smugglers hide the haragas in the shacks along the coast and wait for the right moment to make their escape.”
Torch in hand, the smuggler leads his group out to the sea. Eighty-three people in total, more than he had expected. “I’ve used this boat for fishing loads, and it’s never had a problem. It can hold 12 tons, and here we’re not even six.” What the smuggler isn’t mentioning is the money he stands to gain from the passage; 2,000 dinars, or 1,000 euros a head. His costs: a little gasoline, a spare 45 horepower motor, and the boat he will abandon in Lampedusa, as he does at every crossing.
Mokthar: “We left at one o’clock in the morning. The sky was clear, it was a good night to leave on.”
Hamza: “The sea was calm on the coast, nothing to worry about, and then after two hours of sailing, we found ourselves in the open water … There was nothing to see. The boat began to sway. The waves formed before our eyes, and drenched the passengers on deck. At the back, sea sick people were throwing up overboard. Our group just clung to one another.”
Mokhtar: “For two hours, I thought it was over … The engine stopped, the pump broke down, there were leaks and water came pouring into the boat. At that moment, I told myself I was going to die and no one would find me.”
Hamza: “At that moment, I told myself ‘Hamza, you have just bought death.’”
But he came up short…
With great difficulty, the Yamaha motor restarts. But passengers force the captain to turn back, after three hours of bad weather, engine failure, and a leaking hull. At 4 am, the boat is at Zarzis, 500 metres from the shoreline with all lights off. A mechanic arrives in a dinghy to repair the Yamaha’s pump.
Hamza: “At this point, I knew that the captain wanted to return to sea. He called out, ‘those who want to remain on shore, leave with the mechanic in his dinghy — but they will not be reimbursed for the trip. Everyone else, stay on the boat.’ Me, I preferred to return to the beach. I looked at Mokhtar, and he said: ‘I’m going.'”
Mokthar: ‘Eight went back to the beach. The others, including myself, stayed on the boat’. Maktub — destiny is written. But it became complicated. The motor was running, but the waves had gotten bigger. The boat could have capsized because of the bad weather.”
Finally, the boat headed back to Zarzis, after a further two hours in the midst of the strom. It is 9 am. Mokthar has spent the entire night on the boat. “It was the most frightened I have ever been in my life, and I’m 63.”
Back to Tataouine. Mokthar, Hamza and Zaytuna meet in a café. The two men have spent all of the previous day negotiating with the smuggler. Finally, they managed to recover the majority of their travel costs. The smuggler kept 380 dinars, about 150 euros, without explanation.
They are joined at the table by Mourad, a friend from the neighbourhood. Mourad is tired. This morning he woke up at four in the morning to buy fruit in the villages. Mourad runs a fruit stand, “just like Bouazizi.” That would be Sidi Bouazizi, the young man who became a national hero and sparked protest movements across the Arab world when he immolated himself in January. On good days, Murad says he makes between 10 and 15 dinars a day. Not enough to pay for a crossing. Not enough to dream of another life. So Mourad remains in Tataouine, selling oranges in the city’s central square. “The revolution, it will change nothing for me.”
Hamza still lives with his parents in Tataouine. “My parents told me to forget about trying again. At 3 am, my little sister woke up — she told me that she had heard cries in her sleep, and that she saw me on the boat. At 3 am we were still in the middle of the storm.” But Hamza also has a twin brother who made the passage a month ago. He now lives in Lyon. “Things are going well for him, for the time being. But me, I don’t think I’m going to risk the crossing again. It’s too hard.” Mokthar has also made up his mind. Ten days after the meeting in the café, he attempts the trip again. And this time, he makes it to Lampedusa. Today, he lives in Paris, in fear of being deported back to his native country.
This article was translated from French by Erin O’Halloran.