A cemetery in southern Tunisia for migrants who drowned crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life in Europe is already half full — even before it is formally opened. Jardin d’Afrique, French for Garden of Africa, is for those who were “the wretched of the sea”, said Rachid Koraichi, the Algerian artist and Sufi Muslim who built the cemetery. These migrants, many of whom drowned after boarding flimsy and overloaded boats while facing extortion from “gangsters and terrorists”, deserve a dignified resting place, he said. “I wanted to give them a first taste of paradise,” 74-year-old Koraichi added. His art includes sculptures and ceramics embellished with calligraphy, and has been exhibited from Venice to New York. In 2018, he bought a plot of land to host the cemetery in the southern Tunisian port of Zarzis, near the Libyan border; an area where countless migrants have taken to sea over the years. More than 200 white graves already fill the cemetery, surrounded by five olive trees to symbolise the five precepts of Islam and 12 vines to represent the 12 apostles who were the first disciples of Jesus. Vicky, a 26-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, arrived on foot to Tunisia after several failed bids to reach Italy from Libya. “Going to Europe was my dream,” she told AFP as she swept the cemetery grounds. “But trying to get there has been hell.” ‘Neglected and forgotten’ The cemetery was formally inaugurated on Wednesday by Audrey Azoulay, head of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO. She paid tribute to those “castaways who perished in pursuit of a better life” and to the “universal solidarity of associations, fishermen… or others who save lives” on the Mediterranean. “On this sea, inscribed with part of humanity’s history, there unfolds today a tragedy,” she added, mourning those who died “neglected and forgotten”. Many of those buried there remain nameless for now, and the headstones bear grim and scant information about them. One is inscribed with the words: “Woman, black dress, Hachani beach”, indicating the location where she was found. Another reads: “Man, black sweater, Four Seasons Hotel beach”. “When I see this, I am not certain anymore that I want to make the sea crossing again,” cemetery sweeper Vicky said. Tunisia and neighbouring Libya are key departure points for migrants, many from sub-Saharan African, who attempt the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe, particularly Italy. In early May, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said that at least 500 people had died trying to cross the central Mediterranean this year, more than triple the 150 in the same period of 2020. Koraichi, whose brother was swept away by a current while swimming for leisure in the Mediterranean, funded the cemetery by selling some of his artwork.