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'Still we have nothing' - grieving mothers question Tunisia's sacrifice

More than a year after protests ended the authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the glacial pace of Tunisia's economic recovery has families who lost loved ones in the revolt wondering if their sons and brothers died in vain.

Rebah Briki visits her son’s grave in Kasserine, Tunisia. He was killed by security forces during the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and that sparked a wave of protests across the Arab world.
Rebah Briki visits her son’s grave in Kasserine, Tunisia. He was killed by security forces during the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and that sparked a wave of protests across the Arab world.

More than a year after protests ended the authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the glacial pace of Tunisia's economic recovery has families who lost loved ones in the revolt wondering if their sons and brothers died in vain. John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent, reports

KASSERINE, TUNISIA // Rebah Briki avoids the last resting place of her son, Slah Dachraoui, except on holy days. The pain is unbearable.

For the grieving mother, therefore, it was a sacrifice when she offered to bring The National to the grave.

"Come, mother, it's all right," her daughter Zouhaira, 29, assured her as Mrs Briki shuffled down a track lined with Phoenician junipers in a cemetery at the edge of town. The setting sun cast their shadows on the headstone: Slah's name, a prayer, the word "martyr".

Dachraoui was shot dead last year by security forces during protests that helped to topple the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As interim leaders appeal for patience while tackling reforms, Dachraoui's family fear his sacrifice may be in vain.

"Our sons died. Our hearts are destroyed, and still we have nothing," says Mrs Briki. "Is this life?"

The revolt that transformed dictatorship into an emerging democracy also crippled an economy already weak from years of state corruption, and threw many out of work. The snail-like pace of change is frustrating.

That frustration runs deepest in towns such as Kasserine, a smear of concrete buildings in rugged country near the Algerian border about 210 kilometres south-west of Tunis. Fourteen were killed here in protests last year.

Founded as Cillium by the Romans, the city became a transport hub under the French colonial empire, and it was in nearby Kasserine Pass that German Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel mauled the US Army II Corps in 1943.

After independence in 1956, neglect by Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, made the former crossroads a backwater.

Dachraoui lived with his parents, four sisters and two brothers in a rented two-room house in Hay Nour, a district of blank facades and dim little shops.

Like many young men in such places, he was penniless, loved football and wanted to work in France.

In December 2010, another young man not so different set fire to himself in the town of Sidi Bouzid, 70km to the east. Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide started an uprising that became a revolt, which is still reshaping the Middle East.

As protests rippled through Tunisia, "Slah was very excited, even joyful", said Salma, 17, one of his sisters.

Dachraoui was too young to remember bread riots in 1984. More probably, he thought of Bouazizi.

"He asked us, Will you cry for me if I die?" Salma said. "I never thought the day would come that he really would die."

That day was January 8 last year. Protesters poured through Hay Nour, past the cafe Club El Mourabbine, past the vegetable stall of Dachraoui's father to a large road junction.

"That's when the security started shooting from the petrol station opposite," said Zouhaira, pointing out the spot. "Slah must have been in the lead - look, these holes in the wall could be bullet holes."

Dachraoui was shot in the stomach and rushed to hospital while friends told his family.

When they arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious. Soon after, he was dead. He was 19.

The next day police broke up his funeral with tear gas. Dachraoui's friends were forced to bury him the following day, a day late according to Islamic custom.

On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia as his regime collapsed.

Interim authorities have given families of the dead 40,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh16,354) each in compensation. The Dachraouis spent theirs on a four-room house in a nicer neighbourhood. "Slah wanted that for us," Mrs Briki said.

"But money won't bring back our sons," she said, her voice rising. "The first thing I want is for whoever killed Slah to be tried and sentenced."

Last November, a trial opened of former security and interior ministry officials, and Ben Ali, charged with organising the killing protesters in Kasserine and elsewhere. The next hearing is scheduled for next Monday.

For now, the Dachraouis' only source of income is their vegetable stall.

Others in Kasserine are similarly frustrated. Locals gather almost daily outside the governor's office to petition him for work.

"I have 22 years' experience in construction, and I'm unemployed," said Abdallah Rtibi, a father of two waiting in the corridor. "I want them to start some building projects."

Such requests cannot be met easily, says the blunt-spoken governor Bechir Bedoui, appointed in August.

"Factories, for example, don't come overnight, especially not in the recent conditions," he said. "We've had two violent demonstrations since I began - that doesn't encourage investors."

After Ben Ali's departure, authorities in Kasserine hired 20,000 locals, an emergency make-work scheme Mr Bedoui said is unsustainable.

On a visit to Kasserine in January, president Moncef Marzouki urged Tunisians to be patient - a call echoed by Mr Bedoui.

"Revolutions can't make miracles," he said, noting a 26 per cent local jobless rate. "Kasserine has been deprived of everything for years. One year won't solve its problems."

But there is hope for the town, he insists. An industrial zone is almost ready and cooperation agreements with several European regions are in the works that could speed up tourism and investment.

For Zouhaira Dachraoui, change inspires cautious patience.

"I voted in the elections, and I can wait a bit longer to see improvements," she said.

For now, she maintains a routine of weekly visits to the cemetery, where she brought her mother last Thursday.

Zouhaira covered her hair with a black scarf and led her mother toward the grave, a white rectangle planted with flowers awaiting spring to blossom.

The sky slowly dimmed, and the two women stood for a moment in silence. Then Mrs Briki slumped down on her son's grave and wept.

jthorne@thenational.ae