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Tunisia: seven glass tombs for migrants who died in the Mediterranean

The performance of Tunisian artist Sadika Keskes to remember thousands of men, women and children who died whilst trying to reach Italy, is a lay procession that brought seven glass tombs to the seashore

Seven glass tombs are floating in the seas of Tunisia, on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. Artist Sadika Keskes called them the “Tombeaux de la Dignité”, (dignity tombs), a visible sign Mare Nostrum waters “to remember all those who lost their lives in the Mediterranean and will forever remain without a name and without memories. Men, women, and unfortunately also children.” The small white glass tomb standing out among the other blue ones is in remembrance of all the children who died in the attempt to reach the opposite side of the shore.

Figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that 2,681 migrants died in the Mediterranean or are missing since the beginning of 2017. They were as many as 5 096 in 2016; 3,771 the previous year. 
“It’s incredible that this should happen in a sea that furthered communication between different worlds for centuries, while today it’s a border area”, the artist told SIR.

Her performance, held Sunday October 1st in Gammarth, not far from Tunis, is one of the most significant installations of the contemporary art exhibit titled “PoPo-art contemporain en Tunisie”, held under the auspices of the Tunisian government.

“The place of art is the public realm, for art must speak to people acknowledging their problems – she said -. That’s why we chose the seashore. Over the past few years many families in Tunisia witnessed the departure of their sons and daughters and never heard from them since, while along the border with Libya fishermen are recovering the dead bodies of drowned youths brought by the currents. They are buried beneath thin layers of sand, unidentified, without a name.”

To remember them, and most of all, to raise the attention of the Tunisian society and of Europe on this tragedy, Sadika Keskes decided to organize a veritable lay procession from her atelier up to the beach, where the tombs were anchored to the sea-bed. Upon their departure a Tunisian poet read a poem dedicated to Lampedusa and to its people that in 2011, after the revolution, welcomed thousands of young Tunisians. Gammarth’s initiative is not only a way to remember and cherish the memory of the victims:

Tunisia is experiencing a consistent number of new departures,

Many of whom are exposed to high risk of death. Over the past weeks migrants from Tunisia landed in Sardinia and on the island of Lampedusa, while a few months ago the same happened on the shores of Mazara del Vallo. “Departures increased considerably in September, but many barges were stopped by the Coastal Guards before putting out to sea”, said Reem Bouarraj, a physician working with migrants for the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum.

We meet her on the beach as she watches the tombs lulled by the waves.

“We still can’t tell whether this increase is a result of the situation in Libya or whether it’s strictly linked to Tunisia’s domestic circumstances.” The young doctor was also the only Tunisian woman who formed part of the crew of Acquarius, a vessel run by the NGO Doctors without Borders conducting rescue operations in Libyan waters. I stayed on board for three months – she said – and I can say that this experience has left a deep mark on my life and on my work. Seeing women as they dive into the water with their children to avoid being taken by the Libyan coast guard and sent back to Africa is very telling of what migrants experience in detention centres. What Europe is doing, paying Libyan militia to stop migrants from leaving, is inhuman.” The tombs will remain on Kammarth’s beach for a few days, so they may be seen by tourists and by the Tunisian people, but the project is yet to be completed since Sadika Keskes is planning to leave for Lampedusa by ship in a few days. She will bring with her the same glass cubes that she used to build these dignity tombs with the purpose of repeating the same artistic installation on the Italian island. “My dream – concluded the artist – is to bring these dignity tombs throughout the coasts of the Mediterranean that are places of departure or arrival of migrant people. It will be a way to symbolically mend the broken chord connecting the two Mediterranean shores.”

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