Tunisia. Whatever the Cost, Don’t Let Them Cross

Migrations, a Vanishing Horizon · In 2011 and 2017, two shipwrecks off the Tunisian coast involved units of the Tunisian navy. On both occasions, vessels carrying migrants to Italy were sunk. The first following a collision, the second having capsized at the end of a chase. Technical error or respect —paid at the high price— of the agreements between Tunisia and the European Union?

Photos of disappeared persons in the shipwreck of the Rais Ali.
© Sana Sbouai

Wissem remembers every detail. He was wearing three jackets and two pairs of trousers. Not because he wanted a change of clothes once he reached Italy. No. It was simply because he had a sore throat and he was cold on that 10 February 2011 when he boarded the Raïs Ali, a Tunisian fishing boat which would take him to Italy.

Wissem is a survivor of one the countless sinkings that have taken place on the Mediterranean. He speaks of his desire to leave, the preparation of the journey, the undying hope of one day setting foot on the shores of Europe.

“It’s do or die, we have no choice. There’s no hope in Tunisia any more.” Wissem describes a situation familiar to all those young people who leave Africa because of some armed conflict, a dictatorship, severe economic hardship or simply because they too want to see what the world out there is like.

Except that the moment comes when Wissem’s account breaks down. That trip was his fourth attempt to get to Europe. “Do or die.” Going down with the boat, OK. But to die by the hands of men, no. The boat he was on sank because it was rammed by a Tunisian warship.

Collision at sea

The Raïs Ali, which was carrying at least 119 other passengers besides himself1, broke in two on 11 February 2011 and sank 30 miles off the Tunisian coast through the fault of a Tunisian warship, the Horria 302 (“Liberty” 302). A numbered liberty. A weird name for a ship that prevented people from traveling.

After that, Wissem decided never to try crossing by sea again. He shipped out with two cousins: Fares, 21 and Walid, 19; together with eight other young men from his neighborhood, eleven in all. Only five came back. Two drowned when the ship sank, including the young Walid. Four were reported missing. In their Djerba neighborhood it was perceived as a regular slaughter.

Wissem, who grew up on Djerba, calls himself “a child of the sea”; a “professional swimmer.” He remembers that when the huge jolt occurred and he found himself deep in the sea, he opened his eyes and looked up towards the surface: all he could see was “people, everywhere. . .” He made it to the surface nonetheless, shedding all those layers of clothing that dragged him down. And he managed to push off from the warship hull far enough to avoid being sucked in and crushed by the screws, which was what happened to others. Then he remembers swimming for a while and recovering his cousin’s body until at last he was taken on board the warship. “Twenty minutes in the water . . . my hands couldn’t catch hold of anything any more, I couldn’t grab the rope to pull myself out of the water and on to the ship,” he remembers.

There are thought to have been 120 people on board the Raïs Ali. The naval ship brought back 98 survivors and five whole corpses. The others, sixteen people at least, were reported missing. According to Wissem, there were many more. “None of the people in the hold had time to get out when the ship was rammed.”

“Personally, I didn’t tumble to what was going on, my brain just didn’t react, I figured the warship was going to pull up alongside . . . not that it was going to crash into us,” he adds.

Farouk Belhiba’s son was one of the victims of that sinking. Ever since 11 February 2011, Farouk has been in search of an answer: where is his son’s body? Like fifteen other families, he has been trying in vain to find out what happened to the remains of his child. Before he left, Abdallah, 17, had said to his father while they were sitting on the beach in front of their house: “Please let me go, there’s nothing for me to do here.” Thus, on 10 February 2011, Abdallah Belhiba, boarded the Raïs Ali. Since then, he is among the missing.

Early in the afternoon of 11 February 2011, the Raïs Ali, en route since the day before and nearing the coastal waters of Italy, was rammed by a Tunisian warship. According to all witnesses, the Horria 302 drew close to the migrants’ vessel and ordered it to halt. A few moments later while, as the witnesses attest, the Raïs Ali was at a standstill, the two ships collided. The migrants’ boat, a wooden vessel 14 meters long, could not resist a powerful steel ship, 48 meters long. The Raïs Ali was cut in two by the Horria 302.

Conflicting narratives

There are two contradictory accounts of this incident. Who was at fault? The Defence Ministry conducted an inquiry and an initial report was addressed to the Administrative Tribunal in April 2011. In this report, five crew members of the Horria 302 provided the same version of events: the two ships were side by side, the Raïs Ali failed to stop and unexpectedly changed course, colliding with the Horria 302. Thus it was the Raïs Ali that was mostly to blame for what happened.

The migrants, on the other hand, claimed that their ship had stopped and was rammed by the warship which came at them from the side at a certain speed. The account of the sinking was to evolve in the course of the judicial procedure.

Five families of persons missing or deceased, decided to bring a criminal lawsuit. Nothing came of this. Sixteen others, on the contrary, chose a civil action, hoping to obtain compensation. Thus, in 2011, the case came before the Administrative Tribunal, which ultimately declined jurisdiction. It was then brought before a civil court which appointed three independent experts who issued their report in 2015. It was on the basis of this report that that the warship, the Horria 302 was largely seen to be at fault and in 2016 and 2017 the families were awarded compensation, sums ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 dinars (between 1560 and 2920 euros) for each relative of a person deceased or reported missing. Some families have decided to appeal the case, considering this to be inadequate compensation in view of the moral prejudice.

The experts’ report

Thus, these decisions confirm the fact that it was the Horria 302 which collided with the immigrant boat and not the contrary. But what were the exact circumstances of the collision? Was the migrants’ boat still moving or had it obeyed the order to stop? Was it blocking the way of the Horria 302? Was it a navigational error or did the warship deliberately ram the migrants’ boat?

In 2011, in a meeting in Sfax between military authorities and the victims’ families just a few days after the event, the officers explained that the collision might have been the result of a mistaken maneuver and told the families that if such were the case, “they would not turn a blind eye on this mistake.” And yet, it would appear that the report from the inquiry initiated by the Defence Ministry made no mention of any such error. Moreover, at the time of the collision, one of the officers told the migrants that this affair had to “die right here.” The migrants would not be prosecuted for illegal migration and everybody could go home and forget the whole thing.

The report by the three independent experts was to shed a very different light on the event. Their hypothesis was as follows: since it has been shown that the ships were not on a parallel course, it could not have been the Raïs Ali’s coming about that caused the collision. It has been shown that the Horria 302 bore down on the migrants’ boat at a certain speed. Thus the report concluded that the collision may have been caused by a navigational error on the warship due to excessive speed and a faulty estimation of the distances involved. Poor handling of the warship is also suggested.

Why then did the five members of the warship’s crew all provide a version which is not borne out by the expert inquiry? We put the question to the Defence Ministry and were told by its official spokesperson that it would not be possible to interview the witnesses, to know the Ministry’s point of view, to find out how such accounts were possible and whether any disciplinary measures were taken.

Moreover, several survivors speak of an aggressive attitude among the warship’s crew members, said to have used verbal and physical violence against the victims, ordering them not to climb aboard the zodiac or the ship itself, hitting them with their rifle butts, blaming them for trying to emigrate. The military personnel are said not to have been the least bit shocked or troubled by the collision and to have displayed no empathy whatsoever.

Keeping European borders: at what price?

Six years later, Tunisia was to deplore another incident of the same type, and this time the consequences were even more dramatic. Another sinking took place on 8 October 2017, involving a boat carrying migrants and a warship. The migrants’ boat was sailing 54 miles from Kerkennah when a Tunisian warship tried to intercept it. The migrants’ boat made a run for it. A chase ensued involving . . . and a water cannon, until the migrants’ boat finally capsized and sunk, drowning 45 persons, after the warship had caromed off it. Only 38 passengers were to survive. Was the shipping code respected? For the court and the appointed expert, it was a case of shared responsibility: the migrants’ boat had refused to stop, the warship had come too close.

This time justice was much quicker. The case was tried before the criminal chamber of the permanent military tribunal of Sfax for “involuntary homicide and bodily injury to others committed through clumsiness, recklessness, negligence, inattentiveness or failure to comply with regulations.” Responsibility was divided equally between the captains of the two vessels: the one in command of the migrants’ boat for “violation of the rules for avoiding collisions at sea and sailing in Tunisian territorial waters without complying with the regulations or orders issue by the maritime authority” and the captain in command of the warship for violation of safety instructions.

These two events raise questions regarding the role of Tunisian armed forces, who seem prepared retain migrants on its shores and in its waters at whatever the cost. At the time of the first sinking, two Italian helicopters flew over migrants’ boat just before it was intercepted by the Tunisian warship. There exist a set of agreements between Tunisia and the European Union which include a chapter on security measures. One can therefore assume that there has been an effort of coordination between the armed forces of the various countries on the Mediterranean rim to protect the frontiers of Europe.

Because if not for the benefit of others, why should Tunisia prevent part of its disenchanted youth, for whom it has no immediate solution, from leaving the country?

1Nobody knows how many people were on the boat. Between the survivors, bodies and missing persons there were 119 people counted, but witnesses say there were more people.