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As Tunisia votes, its youth dream of Europe

STORY: In the coastal town of Zarzis, teenagers like Ismail Challahki couldn’t care less about Tunisia’s election.All they’re waiting for is the chance to risk their lives on a smugglers’ boat bound for Europe. A dozen years after the country’s revolution triggered the Arab spring, poverty levels are rising and the political system is all but broken.Nobody Reuters spoke to in Zarzis intended to vote on Saturday (December 17).Including Challahki, who like most of his friends is unemployed.”How do they benefit me? They didn’t benefit those who voted for them. We go through the headache of queuing, registering our names and dipping our fingers in ink, it’s meaningless. I am boycotting.”In Zarzis, misery is sharpened by anger.It’s one of Tunisia’s main launchpads for migrants heading to Italy.Protests shook the town after a September shipwreck. Eighteen local people were drowned.President Kais Saied has pledged an investigation into the Zarzis deaths, but the bereaved say nothing has changed.Authorities launched no rescue effort, they say, and those who washed ashore were buried, unidentified.Salim Zridat’s 15-year-old son Walid was among the missing. He searched hospitals and morgues for him. He can’t bear to see the sea.“To be clear, we are neither with nor against the government. We are not political, we need one truth and that is where are our children? We don’t ask for more than that. Walid, what can I say? Walid, I may be happy if my son’s body is found, even if there are only bones, but I’m also sad about the fate of the youth, I am sadder about the children who will be next.”Tunisia’s election is for a new parliament, but it will have little say.Saied forced through a constitution this year that concentrated power in his hands.As of November, more than 17,500 Tunisians had landed in Italy this year alone, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an organization that works with migrants.The economy shrank 8.5% during the pandemic and supermarket shelves have emptied.“We have nothing to keep us here, nothing, you see the unemployed all around, you have no way out and no future. We have children and don’t know if they’ll succeed or fail in life. We’ve even reached the point where we don’t know if they’ll live or not.”A local founded this cemetery for migrants outside Zarzis, saddened by the anonymous burials of strangers, far from home.Hundreds died off Tunisia this year, the migrant forum said.Challahki joined the protests after the shipwreck. It hasn’t put him off. “I’d like to go to any European country for money and foreign currency. I’d like to fix the house, improve my situation and pay off my father’s debt. I tried to cross three times, it wasn’t easy. Thank God I’m still alive, and hopefully in future, I’ll try again. I did not give up.”