Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Probing the fate of Tunisia's missing migrants

"Look, this is my husband arriving on Lampedusa," said Om Elkhir Wertani, pointing at a vague photograph from a television broadcast, which depicts a boat filled with men.

Her husband, Nabil Guizawi, was among a group of at least 520 Tunisians who illegally crossed to Italy shortly after Tunisia's 2011 revolution and then disappeared. According to his family, Guizawi arrived in Italy safely before he vanished.

Guizawi, then 35 years old, worked temporary jobs and had difficulty paying the rent, Wertani told Al Jazeera. "We saw a steady stream of people in our neighbourhood coming back from Europe with a new car and beautiful clothes," she said. But while she deemed the sea voyage "too dangerous" for her husband to attempt, in late March 2011, he abruptly left. The couple's three young children are still hoping for his return.

"I keep in mind that he could be dead," said Wertani, who works as a private tutor in Tunisia. "But who knows? He might be in prison and unable to call us."

In the lawless period just after the fall of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there were few active coastguards and policemen, and many young Tunisians decided to risk crossing the Mediterranean.

According to estimates from the organisation Boats4People, around 40,000 Tunisians attempted this crossing in 2011. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights found that around 1,500 Tunisians drowned or disappeared that year. So far, the families of 520 people have officially declared them missing.

Family of the missing Tunisians have united through the organisation Land for All, whose office is located in a drafty garage in Tunis. The group has organised numerous demonstrations to draw attention to their situation. But although three members of the European parliament raised questions about the issue last year, the European Commission could not provide any conclusive answers.

The Tunisian government has since announced it will investigate what happened. In March, the government established a commission - consisting of civil servants from various ministries, DNA specialists and family members of the missing Tunisians - tasked with working alongside the Italian interior ministry to get to the bottom of the disappearances.

It remains unclear as to whether all the missing Tunisians actually arrived in Italy or whether some drowned en route, said Federica Sossi, a professor at the University of Bergamo in Italy who has researched the issue.

"During that time, many video recordings were made of the migrants who arrived in Italy, and several people recognised their family members in the images," Sossi told Al Jazeera. "Of course, they may have just been seeing what they wanted to see."

Wertani and Imed Soltani - the president of Land for All, whose two nephews disappeared in 2011 - recalled visiting various migration centres in Italy in 2012. "Some of the people there recognised a few of the missing Tunisians from the photos we showed them and told us that they had stayed there," Soltani said.

"We have no evidence that these people didn't drown," added Helmi Tlili of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is coordinating the government commission. "But we're not ruling anything out and are going to investigate all the images and videos. It could be that some of these people are in prison or in migration centres, or they may have gone into hiding from the law."

Soltani said he had heard rumours that the missing Tunisians were taken by aeroplane to Libya, or that the Italian mafia sold their organs. Tlili dismissed such notions as "just rumours", but Sossi said such outcomes were a possibility. In 2008, Sossi noted, Italy and Libya entered into an agreement about the return of migrants, and early 2011 was a very chaotic time on Lampedusa. "Thousands of Tunisians arrived and not all of them were registered," she said.

By next spring, the inquiry commission hopes to be able to tell family members more about the missing migrants' fate, Tlili said. But not everyone is optimistic.

"All this time, the Tunisian government has done very little for these families," Sossi said. "I don't expect that there is now suddenly the will to get to the bottom of this."

To properly investigate the matter, she added, all the recordings from the coastguards would have to be analysed, as would the telephone calls placed by the Tunisians making the trip. In addition, the unidentified bodies in the Lampedusa cemetery would have to be examined. Tlili did not go into detail about what specific elements the commission would address.

Tunisians still travel regularly in rickety boats to Italy, many disappointed that the dreams of the Tunisian revolution did not materialise. They are looking to escape high prices, low wages and unemployment, paying smugglers 700 to 1,500 euros ($780 to $1,675) for the trip, because it is often impossible for them to get visas.

Pointing to the poor neighbourhood where many of these residents hail from, Soltani said: "I tell them that they might not survive the crossing. Then they answer: 'I'm already dead. This is no life.'"

Tuesday 19 May 2015


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Colombia mudslide after heavy rains kills over 50 people

An avalanche of mud and debris roared over an alpine town in western Colombia before dawn on Monday, killing at least 52 people in a flash flood and mudslide triggered by heavy rains.

Residents were stirred from bed in the dead of the night by a loud rumble and neighbours’ shouts of “The river! The river!” as modestly built homes and bridges plunged into the Libordiana ravine. Survivors barely had enough time to gather their loved ones.

“It was rocks and tree trunks everywhere,” Diego Agudelo said, adding that never in 34 years living next to the ravine had he suspected such a tragedy was possible.

“The river took out everything in its path,” the construction worker said, including the back part of his home.

The disaster hit around 3am local time (8am GMT) in the town of Salgar, about 60 miles (100 km) south-west of Medellin. Dozens of rescuers supported by Black Hawk helicopters evacuated residents near the ravine for fear of another mudslide. A red fire truck could be seen hauling away several bodies, their bare feet dangling from an open trunk.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who travelled to the town to oversee relief efforts, said several children lost their parents and the bodies of those killed needed to be transported to Medellin to be identified. As giant diggers were removing debris he vowed to rebuild the lost homes and provide shelter and assistance for the estimated 500 people affected by the calamity.

“Nobody can bring back the dead ... but we have to handle this disaster as best we can to move forward,” Santos said. Authorities said that 52 people were confirmed dead but that the number could rise. Dozens have suffered light injuries and an unknown number of people are still unaccounted for.

Colombia’s rugged topography, in a seismically active area at the northern edge of the Andes, combined with shoddy construction practices, has made the country one of Latin America’s most disaster-prone. More than 150 disasters have struck the country over the past 40 years, claiming more than 32,000 lives and affecting more than 12 million people, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The tragedy in Salgar appeared to be the single deadliest event since a 1999 earthquake in the city of Armenia that left hundreds dead. A wave of flooding during the 2011 rainy season left more than 100 dead.

The flooding destroyed the town’s aqueduct and even areas in less hazardous zones experienced flooding. As a cautionary measure, electricity and other public services were suspended after several utility poles were knocked down.

Authorities called on volunteers to send water, food supplies and blankets to cope with what they described as a humanitarian emergency.

The town of 18,000 lies amid one of Colombia’s major coffee-growing regions. Former president Alvaro Uribe, who spent part of his childhood in Salgar, where his mother was born, rushed to the town to assist in relief efforts.

Tuesday 19 May 2015


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