Algerian families seek sons lost in Tunisia
The Chemami couple have been looking for their son for almost three years after he left Annaba in Algeria with other youths to make his way to Europe, but vanished in the hardline Tunisia of the president ousted in January.
"He told me from time to time, 'I'm going to go to Europe, I'm going to be an illegal migrant,' but I didn't take him seriously," said Nadia Chemani, a youthful-looking French teacher of 50. "He was a youngster like all the others, spoilt. There was no terrorist problem. He left aged 21."
Chemami and her husband Abdelnasser arrived in Tunis on Monday with a dozen other families in search of their missing children.
They are being represented by an association against torture in Tunisia, and are determined to shed light on the fate of their offspring, whose pictures and birth dates have been posted up on a big wall panel.
On October 8, 2008, 39 young Algerians, three Tunisians and a Moroccan who left Annaba on the eastern Algerian coast to try to reach Italy were shipwrecked on the Tunisian coast near Tabarka, about 150 kilometres (95 miles) east of their departure point.
Was theirs the fate of many illegal migrants who have drowned? Their families are convinced they survived.
"I know that Mehdi reached the Tunisian coast, he called me after the shipwreck," Abdelnasser Chemami said.
"He called 13 days later, he spoke for a few seconds with his sister Asma, then the connection was cut," Mehdi's mother added.
The Algerian families believe that many of the young men - all born in the early 1980s - were arrested by the Tunisian navy, then locked away in Ben Ali's jails.
"Every Algerian entering Tunisia illegally was considered a potential terrorist," Abdelnasser Chemami explained.
Most of the families received reassuring tidings from the Tunisian navy, telling them that the youths had been swiftly released. Then there was no more news. For months on end, the parents received contradictory information or got no answer to their queries.
The Tunisian ministries of the interior and justice toss the ball back and forth. In Algeria, "nobody has taken up or is following the case," Chemami said.
Years passed without any movement in the affair. Then came the Tunisian revolution and the fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali last January 14. Filled with renewed hope and backed by Tunisian human rights groups, the families renewed their quest.
Radhia Nasraoui, the lawyer who chairs the Association to Fight Torture in Tunisia (ALTT), hopes that "the new conditions after the revolution will bring out the truth of this dramatic affair," and has taken it up anew with the ministry of the interior.
But at present, 43 young people are in a Tunisian limbo. Nobody knows anything about them. "I'm not aware of this affair," interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Hichem Moueddeb said on Monday.
"For today's Tunisian authorities, it is as if this never took place. But we are calling for the opening of a serious inquiry, we're going to fight to get the information out of them," Nasraoui said.
"My son is alive in Tunisia. I know that he is living somewhere," Nadia Chemami insisted with the force bred of despair.