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Tunisians remember victims of perilous journey to Europe

By Neil Curry, CNN
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Freedom flotilla goes terribly wrong
  • A boat full of Tunisian migrants sunk after colliding with a Tunisian patrol boat last Friday
  • Survivors say the patrol boat intentionally rammed the migrants' boat
  • Tunisia has increased naval patrols in an efffort to prevent illegal immigration to Italy

Sedouikech, Tunisia (CNN) -- A group of men gather to say prayers over the graves of two friends in the rural town of Sedouikech. They say the men died together when the boat they hoped would help them escape to Europe overturned and sank after a collision with a Tunisian coastguard patrol boat.

Sami Bayahia has come to pay respects to the memory of his brother Walid and his friend.

"They grew up together, they went to school together and they played soccer together. I saw my brother's body and I feel pain but I believe those who are still missing loved ones feel more pain."

Waleed Ben Yehyeten is among those still missing. He's a hotel chef and is due to be married in Sedouikech in July. His family traveled from France to search for him. They say he wasn't an economic migrant -- he just wanted to visit his family in France but had been denied a visa three times.

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His father says: "My son is a good boy, he's not a trouble maker. He lives alone in Sedouikech while the rest of the family lives in France. I want to know if my son is alive or dead. The search must continue. We need a full investigation into this accident. They were in international waters just 15 kilometers from Lampedusa. My message to Tunisians is stay here --- don't go."

Waleed's mother and brother are also here. They made a grim eight-hour roundtrip to the morgue at Sfax and saw five bodies. But Waleed was not among them.

His brother Foued told us: "We get phone calls every day about bodies found here and there. We go there but my brother is not there. They were attacked. It's a crime it was on purpose --- it's not human."

Many of the young Tunisians who joined what they believed to be a flotilla to freedom, did so to escape economic hardship. A poor olive crop and a fading fishing industry combined with a lapse in border controls after the revolution provided the opportunity to leave.

The fishing port of Zarzis in southern Tunisia isn't a particularly attractive place, but it is close to Europe's nearest outpost --- the Italian island of Lampedusa, little more than 100 kilometers away. That was sufficient to attract thousands of would-be migrants in search of a ride. Some of the hard-up fishermen sold their boats to middle men who in turn charged up to $3,000 each for a passage to supposed economic salvation.

We get phone calls every day about bodies found here and there.
--Waleed's brother Foued
Fleeing unrest in Tunisia
Tunisia struggles to move forward
  • Tunisia
  • Lampedusa
  • Italy

We arrived at the port in the middle of the night to be met by soldiers. They told us that no migrants had left from Zarzis, in contradiction to everything we'd heard. But we were pulled to the side by Shemsedine Bourasine, President of Zarzis' Fishermens Union. "That's not the whole story," he told us.

Bousarine said the first boat left Zarzis for Lampedusa on January 14 -- the same night Ben Ali left the country. He said after that, word spread that there were no police guarding the port.

He said some fishermen had sold their boats to middlemen, who charged up to 4,000 Dinars -- about $3,000 -- per person to get on board.

"At the peak there were thousands of them, including a lot of escaped criminals. So a week ago we called the army and there have been no more boats from here since -- just from small ports," he said.

It was from such a small port that the ill-fated voyage began which ended in disaster for the group from Sedouikech.

A degree in electrical engineering had done little to help Wissem Ben Yehyeten find work in the area. So he and his cousin took to the sea with more than 100 others. It was a journey he says he will never forget.

He told us that there had been between 110 and 125 people onboard when the boat was rammed by Tunisian coastguards.

"Our boat flipped over upside down and I saw my friend Waleed still holding onto the sinking boat. I told him: 'I'm gonna die.' I asked him to leave the boat, but it went upside down. Everyone who held onto the boat is missing or drowned. My cousin and I got a small piece of wood which helped us get to the army boat 700 meters away. The water was so cold I don't know how we made it."

Wissem says that when survivors were taken ashore at the Tunisian city of Sfax, the number count reached only 85. "Do the math," he says.

The government says all but five survived the incident and blames the captain of the boat for the collision, saying he failed to heed a warning to stop.

For the majority of illegal immigrants arriving at Lampedusa from Tunisia, their next destination is to be a holding camp somewhere on the European mainland while politicians decide what to do about them.

But for the unfortunate few who fell just a few kilometers short of their goal, the journey ends back where they started: Among the olive trees of Sedouikech -- a dusty town whose friendly people have been left stunned by this unforeseen consequence of the Jasmine Revolution.