SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every year along a stretch of coast in southern Tunisia, hundreds of bodies wash up on the shore. They're the bodies of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe. They pay smugglers to board ill-equipped boats or rubber dinghies and take a terrifying journey that can last for days. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has spoken with one Tunisian who's taking it upon himself to try to give these men, women and children a certain dignity in death.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The sea is angry here at this time of year. It swells and growls in a show of its power. And it's this tide that pulls the bodies in to shore. Waiting for them is local man Chamseddine Marzoug.
CHAMSEDDINE MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) It drags everything in from 50 miles away.
SHERLOCK: The dead are migrants, a lot from as far away as Nigeria or Syria, who drowned at sea as they tried to reach Europe from North Africa.
MARZOUG: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: Marzoug earns his living as a mechanic. But he's also become the person the authorities call when they find a migrant's corpse. "Those calls come often, sometimes, once a day," says Marzoug. The U.N. migration agency says that more than 33,000 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean in the last 18 years. Here in Zarzis, the local municipality used to dispose of the bodies that washed up, sometimes dumping several in a single hole in the ground. But Marzoug and the local Red Crescent aid group where he volunteers managed to secure a small plot of land for a cemetery.
MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) When I see these people washing up on the shore, I feel that life has rejected them. So why should we reject them? Why should we reject giving our African brothers a proper burial?
SHERLOCK: It's a makeshift operation. Marzoug often washes the bodies on the beach where they're found, bloated and tangled in seaweed. And he borrows a van from a friend at the Red Crescent to take them to the burial site. To get there, you have to go far out of town.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
SHERLOCK: We've driven down this dirt road and past olive groves. And we've arrived at a place that looks like the middle of nowhere. There's a sign that says cemetery for the unknown, and it's written in six different languages. Walking to the grave site, there's mounds of sand to indicate the individual graves.
MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) A mother and son were together in the world, so they should lie together in death.
SHERLOCK: Marzoug's kneeling by a grave of a mother and child, a boy no older than 5. He laid them to rest with their heads side by side. A small Lego block is carefully embedded on the top of the little boy's sandy burial place.
Marzoug tries to give identity to each of the simple graves. A red geranium flower's on one. Shelves decorate another. He takes us to see the plaque on the only grave in the cemetery with a name.
MARZOUG: Rose Marie, Nigeria (speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: She died in May of last year on an overcrowded boat that carried 126 migrants. A man on that boat visited her grave and told Marzoug what he knew about her life.
MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) He told me she was a teacher in Nigeria. And there, she had a child who passed away. She lived a hard life there.
SHERLOCK: Marzoug says he's buried 75 people just in the last year. He thinks about the unfairness of their situation in life and of their loved ones.
MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) All of these people that I buried here are people who were living in homes. And their parents were waiting to hear back from them, to hear a letter that they're OK. Instead, they died on these boats of death.
SHERLOCK: Despite all the danger, two of Marzoug's own sons have made this journey to Europe in a desperate search for work. He didn't know they were going before they boarded a smuggler's boat. But they made it safely.
MARZOUG: Elias (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHERLOCK: As we talk about them, he gets an alert on his phone. It's a video from his older boy, Firas, that shows him cooking a Tunisian meal at his home in Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF PILOT LIGHT POPPING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter, speaking Arabic).
MARZOUG: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: Marzoug believes they were aided on their journey by the spirits of the dead here.
MARZOUG: (Through interpreter) I dreamt that it was these souls in their graves who prayed for my sons to reach safety because they don't want me to feel pain their parents felt.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
SHERLOCK: Before we leave, Marzoug prepares an empty grave that waits to be filled. Now the cemetery is almost full, so he's trying to raise money to buy more land to make space for new graves.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Zarzis, Tunisia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.