The ferryman of souls

When you leave Sfax via the Gabes road, you pass by the Christian cemetery of the city. Since the end of the Protectorate, the Christian inhabitants of the region are buried herei. The pastor is Father Jonathan. When the sea returns the dead bodies of migrants who were shipwrecked, he makes a final tribute to these lost passengers.

The sky is gray, the air is still warm, the weather oppressive and humid in this autumn day. The big rusty gate of the cemetery is closed with a bolt. The key must be lost since some time. In any case, who would need it? Father Jonathan pushes the door on one side and enters this sacred place.

//On the road to Gabès there are three cemeteries: one Jewish, one for Commonwealth soldiers who fell during the World War II and the Christian cemetery. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

At the end of the cemetery, the guardian and his partner are sweeping up the branches. A dog, not clear if it is wild or domesticated, welcomes visitors in a bad way. Barking and showing his teeth. It is a sad environment for a final abode.

The Christian cemetery of Sfax dates back to the Protectorate. Next to the graves of the Christians, who rest here since decades, we find others made of concrete that contain the newcomers. The migrants.

Father Jonathan is originally from Nigeria and has traveled a lot before arriving in Tunisia in September 2010. Two years ago, he became the head of the Catholic Church in Sfax and Gabés. Since his arrival in the country, he helps migrants and very often is the last person to pay them the tributes.

//The place welcomes, after the end of the Protectorate, the remains of the Christian inhabitants of Sfax. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

He walks among the graves, he stops in front of some of them and for a moment seems to remember the ceremonies, the family members and friends present. Or the lack of them, so heavy. He buried only two people from Sfax since taking office. The others are Christian migrants, rarely accompanied, whose exact identities are never known for lack of documents.

//The cemetery looks abandoned. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

Father Jonathan could have had a different fate.

As a young man he had embarked on a promising career as a professional footballer. Out of nostalgia, he continues to play football regularly with the young sub-Saharan students who live in Sfax or the Tunisian children from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. He never misses a game of his favorite team, FC Barcelona, and goes to the stadium to cheer the Club SportifSfaxien. He wanted to try another sport out of curiosity, and took a boxing course.

He's the kind of man who doesn't crash, nor be intimidated and is not afraid of the threats of scoundrels who gravitate around the world of migration.

The football world was not for him and he ended up completely changing path, devoting himself to the study of philosophy and theology before joining the order.

//Father Jonathan in a moment of silence. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

His job is to help others, but he has never been prepared to assist migrants and refugees. "The reality knocked on my door, and I could not close it." As soon as he arrived in town, he immediately responded to requests for help to deal with the humanitarian crisis that was occurring in the south of the country.

“Tunisia: The foreign nationals who flee from Libya need to be protected”

report by Human Rights Watch

When the war broke out in Libya in 2011, civilians started arriving en masse in Tunisia. A camp, the Shousha, was set up a few kilometers from the border, to accommodate between 3 thousand and 4 thousand migrants. Settled in Libya, they have suddenly found themselves on the Tunisian territory, but the local authorities were not ready to accept these newcomers. Besides the fact that they have very often been the victims of threats and ill-treatment during their flight, these refugees found themselves in great hardship here. Tensions between them and the local population and the Tunisian authorities have caused riots and deaths.

"I arrived in Shousha and could not leave anymore. I found myself facing a situation very similar to what I had experienced in the nineties, when I was a refugee in my country." Father Jonathan was then 16 years old. An experience that has marked him and that partly explains his deep involvement in the defense of migrants.

//Two graves where the inhabitants of the city are buried. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

After spending nearly two years in Ben Guerdane, the closest Tunisian town to the field, he went back in Sfax in the spring of 2013, a few months before its closure, and in the meantime no solution was found for the people on the spot. There, he continues his humanitarian work, a never-ending mission. "It is not easy to cut ties when working with people who have had to flee."

The phenomenon takes on another form in cities. There is less of an emergency, but a lot of social violence. And most of all, for those who want to embark and try to cross the sea, Sfax is a favorable and strategic region for clandestine departures towards Italy. There are often shipwrecks off of this coastal town.

According to the Tunisian Red Cross, four boats have been shipwrecked in 2013 and 2014, killing eight people, including a child.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that more than 3 thousand migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2014, out of a total of 4077 migrants who lost their lives around the world the same year. The number of lives lost while crossing the sea was 700 in 2013, and 1500 in the first nine months of 2011. Father Jonathan himself is a migrant and understands well the desire to leave that everyone can feel.

//Father Jonathan passes from tomb to tomb. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

"I do not think there is a good and a bad migration. Migration is a characteristic of humanity. We are always on the move. We always depart to look for security and peace. "

But the hardest part of his job and one of his main responsibilities is the burial of the bodies.

Since 2012, he has paid tribute in the cemetery of Sfax to more than twenty Christian migrants who died at the sea or on land.

//A prayer before the tomb where a dozen migrants rest. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

While walking among the tombstones he suddenly stops in front of a dusty concrete slab. No cross, no name. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It seems as if the the ground was simply cemented. But a dozen of people are buried here. With no identity, as if they had never been there. As if they had never existed.

//A prayer before the tomb where a dozen migrants rest. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

"Today, my mission is to help the migrants and I like it. But I would never have thought that one day I would have to bury the bodies of people of whom I do not even know the name" he says disappointedly.

He finds all this unfair. He would like to denounce more forcefully what migrants suffer. Especially the migrants who die alone. He is for free movement and can not accept the idea that people can die crossing the borders.

//The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, donated by the faithful. (Photo by Sana Sbouai).

And then, in difficult times, he turns to Our Lady of Lourdes on a pedestal at the end of the cemetery. She protects the dead who are buried here. So, perhaps, they will feel less alone in their journey to the afterlife.



Sana Sbouai

Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar










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