Marie-José Tubiana, “The Fighter”

She receives us in her living room full of memories and archives, where she has collected the words of more than 300 asylum seekers from Darfur. It is this patient work that the documentary relates The Fighter by Camille Ponsin (1). From 2002, all the villages in this region of Sudan were threatened by the men of Omar El-Bechir, the president in power from 1989, using a similar mode of action: an attack that surrounded an entire village, the massacre of its inhabitants, the theft of cattle and the burning of all the houses until the places were completely destroyed.

Since 2005, exiles from Darfur have come to ask for help from Marie-José Tubiana, generally after having been rejected by OFPRA (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons), which refused them political refugee status. The motives vary: the village from which they claim to come does not exist; they did not seem sincere enough; they did not mention with sufficient precision the abuse suffered, etc.

Validate stories with documents

Supported by interpreters in Zaghawa, Sudanese Arabic and Tama, the languages ​​of the region, Marie-José Tubiana listens to them for hours, questions them, searches in her own books and the archives accumulated over the decades for elements to validate their narrative – locate a village wiped off the map, link to a community, document excision practices, etc.

What interests me is knowing who the other is, who my neighbor is. It is with these words that Marie-José Tubiana explains her vocation as an ethnologist. After studying at the Faculty of Bordeaux, deeply touched by Abbé Pierre’s appeal for the homeless on her arrival in Paris in 1954, she embarked on a study of urban ethnology on emergency housing. from Emmaus to Pontault-Combault. Member of the CNRS and attached to the Musée de l’Homme, she was then offered a mission in Chad with Joseph Tubiana, linguist and ethnologist, who would become her husband.

I’m leaving from October 1956 to November 1957, with just a three-week return for the wedding, she says. I like large expanses, this densely populated desert, and getting involved in global work where everything is to be learned. When they return, two children are quickly born, entrusted to a teacher who has offered to look after them when she leaves on a mission.

Survivors of a Lost World

As she refuses the orientations that the Chadian government wants to give to her investigations, Marie-José Tubiana leaves for Sudan, a neighboring country, in 1965, more precisely in Darfur. This region will remain her privileged field of study, on which she will publish many books.

From the 1960s, the ethnologist, trained in directing by Jean Rouch and his editor, shot films in 16 mm. Camille Ponsin inserts excerpts from it into her documentary, which gives it a nostalgic tone. They show a peaceful and harmonious world with its villages planted with palm trees and its rituals. A world that has now disappeared during a long genocide whose survivors tell Marie-José Tubiana of the irreparable destruction. Their flight to France led them to cross the desert, to undergo torture and slavery in Libya, to risk drowning in the Mediterranean, to wander in a frightening administrative maze in our country, before seeing themselves signify for some a return to starting point.

‘A sense of shame’

To avoid this and help them obtain the status of political refugee, Marie-José Tubiana documents their journeys and delivers long, detailed attestations of the veracity of their statements. In front of Camille Ponsin’s camera, she seems to be able to hear everything impassively.

Often these refugees speak without crying, so it’s out of the question for me to cry in front of them, she specifies. Their modesty obliges me to have a reserve.Generally disturbed by their stories, I do not lose my ability to act. Listening to them, I feel a lot of empathy and the need to help them. »

In 2016, Marie-José Tubiana devoted a book to them Unchosen emigration. Stories of asylum seekers from Darfur (The Harmattan, 120 p., €10). Now 92 years old, tired, she says she can no longer continue. During weeks of convalescence following a bad fracture, she nevertheless received asylum seekers in her nursing home.

“The way they are treated is only getting worse,” she worries. France’s migration policy terrifies me and inspires me with a feeling of shame. Our country must welcome these people who are neither beggars nor terrorists. They need to be believed and respected. »


His inspiration. “A debt towards these populations who practice giving and counter-gifting”

Even if it costs her intimately to collect the terrible stories of political refugees who have lived through atrocities, Marie-José Tubiana has always considered her work with them to be obvious. “This commitment is a debt towards populations who practice giving and counter-gifting, she explains. The people of Darfur received me so well, gave me so much knowledge about themselves that I can only be available to them, often children and grandchildren of people I met. It’s the answer of an honest woman, it seems to me. Reciprocity seems essential to me. »

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