TUNIS // Mohamed Mbarki was 16 when he was shot in the back of the head in the town of Kasserine on January 8, 2011, the first victim of live fire by security forces during the Tunisian uprising.
It was his death, and those of 21 others in Kasserine and Thala over the next four days, that turned what had largely been regional protests into a nationwide uprising that forced president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power.
The protests began in the town of Sidi Bouzid following the self-immolation on December 17, 2010, of Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor, over police harassment.
They soon spread to nearby towns, but it was in Kasserine, Thala that the security forces went on their worst rampage, killing 22 people and injuring about 200 between January 8 and 12.
More than 300 people died during the uprising, according to UN estimates, with the highest toll in Kasserine.
As Tunisia marks the third anniversary of the uprising today, the families of the slain say the military tribunal handling the killings is conducting a cover-up and that they still do not know who killed their children.
“Only the families of the martyrs remember them. No one else cares,” said Asma Mbarki, Mohamed’s sister.
Kasserine, near the western border with Algeria, is the poorest town in Tunisia. For decades, government investment and development projects went to the coastal regions, creating deep inequalities and unemployment that spawned the uprising. It lies in the shadow of Mount Chaambi, which has been in the news more recently because of the armed groups hiding in caves there and battling security forces.
With little to lose, the youths of this town braved the Ben Ali regime’s bullets while Tunisians in the wealthier coastal regions were still too afraid to take to the streets.
“In other places, like Sousse or Tunis, people were afraid of Ben Ali. It was Kasserine that made the revolution,” said Ms Mbarki.
What has become known as the Thala and Kasserine Martyrs’ Trial is based on extensive evidence gathered by an investigating judge. In late 2011, the case was transferred to the military tribunal, which has held a series of group trials . The next hearing is set for December 26.
The people of Kasserine are convinced that the masked gunmen who shot at protesters from rooftops in Kasserine for several days in January 2011 were from an elite brigade of “snipers”. They were clearly distinguishable from the anti-riot police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets and carried regular weapons, residents say.
The military and the post-uprising governments insist the killers were police officers.
The military tribunal sentenced sentenced Ben Ali in absentia to life in prison for the killings. The former interior minister Rafik Kacem was given 12 years, and Wissem Ouertani, head of the Kasserine police, was sentenced to 15 years.
Others, including Ali Seraiti, who was Ben Ali’s head of security and had been convicted in the shooting of protesters elsewhere in the country, were acquitted in the Kasserine-Thala case.
Amna Guellali, the Tunisia and Algeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the convictions were based on their public statements and speculation.
“Tunisian law is not well-equipped to deal with group crimes, committed by a hierarchy of people,” she said.
The military hearings have provided little clarity, failing to name the commander or any of the officers who fired on civilians, meaning those who fired the shots have never gone to trial.
“It doesn’t give a full picture of what happened, and it doesn’t unearth all of the connections that were at the heart of this massacre,” Ms Guellali said.
Dr Abderrazek Missaoui, head supervisor at the Kasserine Hospital, was there when Mbarki’s father brought his son’s body in.
“This child’s brains were coming out,” he said.
The doctor scoffs at the military tribunal’s finding that the shooters were regular police officers, arguing that the carnage in Kasserine was part of a deliberate crackdown to spread chaos and fear.
The internet was cut and roadblocks were set up around the town, Dr Missaoui said. Ambulances were prevented from accessing the victims.
“The evidence that there were snipers was obvious. I saw this in the emergency services.”
Whether or not there were snipers, one of the biggest issues is the military tribunal’s lack of independence.
But now a new mechanism might allow for a more thorough and transparent investigation.
The long-delayed transitional justice legislation was passed by Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly on Sunday. Drafted in consultation with civil society and international experts, the bill had broad political support. It paves the way for the creation of an independent “truth and dignity” tribunal.
Crucially, it will allow for archives of government, police and military records to be opened.
Members of the old regime destroyed much of the evidence that might incriminate them, but there is still hope, activists say.
Sihem Bensedrine, a human-rights advocate, said the destruction of documents “happens in every revolution” but “however many were destroyed, a good portion still remains”.
The new law covers abuses from 1955 until January 14, 2011, so it remains to be seen whether priority will be given to the killings that occurred during the uprising.
Walid Saadaoui was hit on January 9, when the rooftop gunmen fired on Mbarki’s funeral procession.
The 27-year-old lay bleeding for two hours because the security forces blocked taxis or ambulances to take him to the hospital.
The autopsy report confirmed he died of intestinal haemorrhaging the following day.
His mother, Salha, is angry at the military tribunal as well as by what she says is a lack of political will from both the government and the opposition to remember those who played a critical role in toppling Ben Ali.
All the families who lost a child during the uprising have received two payments of 20,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh44,000), and many have had a street named in honour of the victim. But what they want most is accountability and justice.
Like most people interviewed, Walid’s mother expressed little optimism that the transitional justice law would change anything.
“The military is covering up the snipers,” she said. “Tunisia is like a theatre, where no one cares about anything, they are just looking after their own interests.”