In Tunisia, a struggle at risk of being forgotten

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KASSERINE, Tunisia — By all accounts, no place in Tunisia suffered more from killings by police than this put-upon town during the protests that upended the country’s long dictatorship earlier this month, and sparked other uprisings around the region.

Yet, for all the daring of the stone-throwing youths who took the lead in the revolt, there is fear among victims that their struggle is already being forgotten. From here, the political maneuvering in Tunis, the capital, between leftovers from the government of newly exiled president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and opposition newcomers in the interim cabinet risks leaving the victims’ concerns behind.

Indeed, besides the express desire to boot out Ben Ali-linked politicians from the government, people in Kasserine view justice as a key test of the Tunisia to come.

“It’s not right that people should be shot at for throwing stones — this issue cannot be put aside,” Adel Baccari, a local magistrate here, told me in an interview. “The case should be put in the hands of honest judges. Responsibility must be assigned.”

That this sentiment should prevail here is really no surprise. Kasserine, sitting near the Algerian border, has always felt itself a forgotten land. It displays practically nothing of the economic benefits that flowed from Ben Ali’s open trade and tourism policies. City streets — if paved at all — are pockmarked, houses are run down, the lone industry is a paper factory and it’s not easy to find a young person with a job. As in other parts of Tunisia, the protests here were initially fueled by rage at lack of job opportunities.

(Read: Rocking the casbah — a region in upheaval. Confused about all the protests? Here's everything you need to know about what's happening in this volatile region of the world.)

Human Rights Watch was able to find hospital and municipal records for 17 victims from three days of Kasserine protests in early January. Dozens more were injured by police bullets. Foreign reporters have dubbed the uprising the Jasmine Revolution, but in Kasserine it smelled of tear gas and gunpowder.

The death of Mohammed Amine Mbarki, a 17-year old son of a mechanic, gives a flavor of the violence and its reach into Kasserine. On the evening of Jan. 8, Mbarki told his father, Salah Ben Nasr Mbarki, that he was going out to visit a grandparent. In fact, a friend named Hamza Mansouri told me, the youth joined a demonstration at the main roundabout in the Zehour district of Kasserine, the poor neighborhood where they lived. Hundreds of youths chanted demands for jobs and “Ben Ali to the wall” as a phalanx of police fired tear gas at them from the front of a police station. At one point, Mansouri said, Mbarki, was standing next to him and took a bullet to the back of the head. Mansouri looked for a taxi to take the boy to the hospital, while other youths informed his father.

“We were shocked,” said Mansouri. He said police snipers never before seen in Kasserine did the killing.

Zehour residents quickly sanctified the roundabout with the name Martyrs Square. Young people readily exhibit videos on their mobile phone of chaos and bloody police violence. One shows a frenzied scene in a hospital emergency room, where a victim is shown with his brain blown out.

Mansouri, a strapping six-foot tall merchant, took part in a funeral cortege that passed through Martyrs Square the next day. Tear gas rained on the procession and again snipers fired. The car bearing Mbarki’s body retreated and took a back route to the cemetery. Mansouri, meanwhile, spied a sprig of a girl, Afaf Doudi, 16, who had been shot in the thigh about 100 yards from Martyrs Square. He put her into the only available taxi — it was carrying a dead victim — to get her to the hospital. Five or six people died at the roundabout that day, he said, including at least one during the funeral.

Doudi, an electrical student, later told me she was not part of the demonstration, but was visiting a niece and had stopped to chat with a friend. Her left thigh bone is fractured. She said that on the way to the hospital, her taxi met a police blockade and the driver had to show the body in the trunk to get permission to pass.

Despite all the horror, Mansouri returned to the roundabout on Jan. 10 for another round of protests. He got shot in the left shoulder near the neck.

“I would have protested the rest of my life,” he said. Police and snipers disappeared from the city that night. Enraged Kasserinis took the opportunity to burn several municipal and ruling party buildings, as they had done before the shootings began.

One of the wonders of the uprising is that the more the police shot protesters, the more determined they became. Those in charge counted on the bullet to intimidate what before had been a pretty docile population.

They miscalculated badly in Kasserine, which has long taken a victims status as a badge of identity. They consider themselves the cradle of freedom. And now they want justice, not jasmine.

Salah Ben Nasr Mbarki, the dead teen’s father, said no one has come to investigate and he wants an investigation, “Even if I can’t pay for a lawyer.”

Afaf Doudi, lying on a couch where she’s been immobilized while convalescing, is skeptical: “No one outside of Kasserine cares,” she said.

Mansouri heaped disdain on faraway Tunis. “There, they only talk politics, not the killing, as if they came to power during a party,” he said. “The thieves must be ejected and the government should look into the deaths now.”

If Tunisia is to move ahead to full respect for the law and human rights, it must assign individual responsibility to those who ordered and committed these acts as quickly and decisively as possible. Otherwise, the frustrations evident in Kasserine could turn to cynicism and boil over into a revenge witch hunt and more violence.

Daniel Williams is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. He was previously a foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald,  Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Bloomberg News, and has covered the Middle East for the past decade.

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