An eye-opening visit: Chott Salem
On Saturday afternoon, a visit to Chott Salem on the outskirts of Gabes close to the industrial zone, was an occasion for participants to discover a sad landscape which is inhabitants’ surrounding environment and their children’s playfield. The bright colors of their clothes are in stark contrast with the gray stretch of sand that, one imagines, must have been shades lighter several decades ago. Floating in a muddy sea were the bodies of fish—and tortoises. Tired looked the few remaining palms of the Mediterranean’s only marine oasis. Visitors spotted waste that had been dumped by the National Sanitation Bureau (Office national de l’assainissement, ONAS), breathed in the odors of phosphogypsum floating at the water’s surface, detected the noise of GCT’s dilapidated factories in the background. “We only stayed two hours, but my lungs are stinging,” complained on of the visitors.
Visitors, both foreign and Tunisian, were marked by the experience. “The regions in the south of Tunisia have little visibility,” says Nader Chkiwa, president of the Association for the Protection of the Chott Sidi Abdel Salem Oasis (APOCSG). “The visit today was an opportunity for foreigners to see the extent of the catastrophe that we live in Chott Salem and, perhaps for us to gain support for our problem.” For years, it was taboo to talk about this reality, and today, one has a bit more freedom to speak out, although the code of silence subsists. “Before the revolution, if we spoke, we died. Now, we speak till we die,” explains Chkiwa.
“The death of Abdelkader Zidi is proof of a crime that was once taboo, but is becoming clear,” he muses. The stopover in Gabes culminated at UGTT headquarters with a gathering in honor of Abdelkader Zidi in the presence of his family. Friends and relatives—and all who were present—shared feelings of pain and anger. Ramzi Khlifi, secretary general of the regional STEG union, denounced the attitude of GCT officials, who immediately denied their implication without a preliminary investigation. “Where are your air detectors? Where are the technical means to substantiate claims that you are not responsible? We want the truth. We are going to create an investigation commission. We will fight until justice has been served. Officials are saying that Abdelkader was afflicted with respiratory illnesses. But we all have respiratory illnesses here!”
“The State does not see us as humans, but as simple numbers. My brother was nothing but a number. Those who die are not the children of officials and those in government,” observed Abdelkader’s brother. His sister, in tears, emphasized that, like many families in Chott Salem, she is forced to borrow money to purchase medication.
With a voice that trembled a bit, Hervé Paris of the Odyssey team declared that work should not cause death. “It’s a shared combat. We are going to speak out, and carry with us the emblem of our friend who passed away. I hope that Abdelkader will be the last victim of pollution and work.” His portrait will travel with the crews to Marrakech.
In a room decorated with red flags, the emotion was palpable. The future remains uncertain as the crews continue their journey, as Gabesiens, particularly those who live around the industrial zone, continue to hope for the right to breathe, as public authorities continue to deny evidence of a catastrophic environmental situation.