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A child’s grave in Rachid Koraichi’s Jardin d’Afrique cemetery in Zarzis, Tunisia (all images courtesy the artist)

Rachid Koraichi, a Paris-based Algerian artist noted for his work on memory sites, is building a cemetery and a memorial in Tunisia for migrants who have died in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe. Although the project is scheduled to open next spring, in July of this year, Koraichi buried 56 bodies of drowned migrants after he was approached by the Tunisian authorities.

Jardin d’Afrique (Garden of Africa), located in the town of Zarzis in Southeast Tunisia, will include a non-denominational cemetery, a place for washing the bodies before burial, a monument, and a chapel honoring all faiths. Each tombstone in the cemetery will show the deceased’s name if it’s known, the date of their death, and the person’s DNA code to indicate whether the body is that of a man, woman, or child.

“This place that I call the Garden of Africa now is a place of burial for all those bodies of woman, children, babies, and men who are brought to the shore by the sea,” Koraichi told Hyperallergic in an email. “There’s no strong international reaction around what has happened with all the migrant boats that came to the harbor,” he continued. “Many countries refuse to welcome these Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi. But when they come to the coasts of Tunisia, we never ask who is responsible for this.”

An unmarked grave of an anonymous drowned migrant.

Koraichi first visited Zarzis last December last year after hearing stories about the mistreatment of the bodies of hundreds of drowned migrants who have been buried in Tunisia. “I received pictures and I saw how the bodies of these migrants were treated,” he said, “So, I decided to go see it in this city myself.”

After seeing the frightful reality on the ground, he decided to start his project. He bought a 27,000 square-foot agricultural lot of land from a local farmer for the fully self-financed project. “What also drove me to create the sacred African Garden is that we North Africans tend to turn our backs to Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “It’s fundamentally important that we also give importance to this land which is a great continent on the other side.”

But in July, while the project was still in its early stages, 90 anonymous migrants, including a baby and a pregnant woman, were brought to burial after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Reporting near-full capacity in the local cemeteries, Tunisian authorities have asked Koraichi to bury 56 of the bodies in his unfinished cemetery. The bodies are currently buried in unmarked graves but will be moved to proper burial plots when the project is completed.

About a month before this incident, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sounded an alarm against the increasing death toll of migrants crossing the sea from North Africa, specifically Libya, to Europe. The organization’s records, along with data provided by the International Organization for Migration, show that nearly 350 of 1,940 people who have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy since the beginning of 2019 have died en route, raising the death rate of migrants in boats to 15%.

Rachid Koraichi (center) during construction works in Jardin d’Afrique.

Born in 1947 in Ain Beida, Algeria, Rachid’s works draw from Sufi philosophy and the calligraphy of Quranic texts. He is also known for engaging local artists and craftsmen in site-specific installations that preserve memory and promote sustainable development. In 2005, he built the Jardin d’Orient at Château Royal d’Amboise in the Loire Valley in France in homage to Emir Abdelkader, Algeria’s former spiritual and military leader. Abdelkader was imprisoned in the château during his fight against the French colonial invasion of Algeria in the mid-19th century.

Koarichi’s interest in the migration crises has its roots in a painful personal story. His brother Mohamed, who was a year older than him, drowned in the Mediterranean shortly after Algeria gained its independence in 1962. His body was never found. “I found myself empathizing with the situation of these rejected migrants who are brought to the shore by the sea,” Koraichi told Hyperallergic. “And so, it is in my brother’s memory that I am doing this. My brother was like my twin and because of that accident, I feel like I was cut in half.”

“In creating this sacred place, I really think I am keeping the memories of the migrants alive,” Koraichi continued. “I am documenting a moment in the history of humanity where everyone has abandoned the migrants, where we let their boats sink. When the migrants have survived and braved the sea, the coast turns them down and that’s mournful. I think it will be the white pebbles in the garden that will serve as a reminder of what happened in 2019, and perhaps [this is] a year that people will refer to when this continues to happen in the years to come.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Follow him on Instagram @hakimbishara and send him your tips, comments, and questions at hakim@hyperallergic.com.