A dozen young men left Sedouikech, a village of olive groves and whitewashed houses near the Mediterranean coast last week, bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa aboard an overcrowded fishing boat. They were part of a flotilla of would-be migrants that has created a humanitarian crisis and stirred a political furore in Italy.
But unlike the more than 5,000 Tunisians who have successfully reached Italy's shores, this group's trip ended in failure and death. On February 14, villagers buried one of the men, Walid Bayahia, who was killed when the fishing boat collided in the frigid waters with a Tunisian National Guard patrol vessel and sank, according to four of the villagers who survived.
“Four buried and two missing — it's a disaster,” said Tarak Bahyoun, a house painter who attended the funeral. “Nothing like this has ever happened here.”
The fall of Tunisia's autocratic President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14 brought euphoria and hope to this country of 10 million people. But the revolution, as Tunisians call it, also created a power vacuum. After battling protesters for weeks, the police, fearing retribution, fled their barracks.
It suddenly dawned on the young and underemployed that there was no one standing in their way if they wanted to leave for Italy — and the prospect of a good-paying job in a European Union country.
“No fear anymore,” reads graffiti along the main road in Zarzis, a port city near the border with Libya that is the departure point for many of the migrants.
“Before the 14th the police and the National Guard were everywhere,” said Salem Ben Abdallah, whose son Moncef Ben Salem died in an attempt to get to Lampedusa a week earlier. “Then the police disappeared.”
Tunisia's caretaker government said on February 14 that it had set up military checkpoints at several ports to try to halt the flow of migrants amid growing tensions with Italy. Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, was expected to meet with Tunisia's interim Prime Minister on the evening of February 14 after the Tunisian authorities turned down an Italian request to send its own police officers to help patrol the coast.
More than 3,000 Tunisians have landed in Lampedusa, which is just off Sicily, in recent days, leading the Italian government to declare a state of humanitarian emergency. One Italian official called it an “unprecedented biblical exodus.”
Italy has also called on the European Union for help in dealing with the migrants.
In Zarzis, a small group of soldiers patrolled the port on February 14. “We are being very, very strict now,” said a security official who stood guard at the entrance and declined to give his name. “We want to be sure that this phenomenon stops.”
For now, the soldiers seem to have stemmed the tide of migrants, and fishermen report seeing fewer departures. But the army's presence is thin and the coastline is long.
Fishermen say they are sleeping in their boats because they are worried that they may be stolen by people who want to leave the country. “We saw them day and night,” Mohamed Hnid, a security guard at the port, said as he sat on a pile of fishing nets. “Only God knows why they went,” he said. “They are insane.”
The young men of Sedouikech who survived the fishing boat's sinking gave various reasons for their decision to try to reach Europe. Several have family in France. Others sought better-paying jobs. One of the victims, Lassaad Ragdal, had a French fiancée, villagers said. He was buried here on February 13.
Finding steady work at home is difficult, said Zyed Ben Salem, one of the survivors. “We can only rely on tourism three or four months a year,” he said. Income from fishing is limited, and the olive groves have suffered low yields in recent years because of drought.
“I have been trying to convince our young people not to go there,” said Gacem Ben Yahiaten, an English teacher who drove the bodies of the dead men back to the village. “But they have this idea — they want to make money quickly, and they think it's easy in Europe.”
The trip was Mr. Ben Salem's first attempt to reach Europe. “I won't try it again,” said Mr. Ben Salem, who added that he paid about $1,400 to a smuggler to make the journey.
He and three other survivors recounted seeing the lights of Lampedusa — which is closer to Tunisia than to the Italian mainland — when their boat was intercepted by the Tunisian National Guard.
The National Guard boat, which survivors said was named Horriya, or Freedom, rammed them, the survivors said. The National Guard could not be reached for comment.
“We heard a very loud noise,” said one of the survivors, Wissem Ben Yahyaten, who described the sound of the hull splintering. “I can still hear it. It was like we were watching an action film.” (Rachel Donadio contributed reporting from Rome.)— © New York Times News Service