Thursday, May 26, 2011

Real Voices of Tunisia

Here is another report by Amanda Sebestyen, who visited Tunisia and spoke to some of the young people at the heart of its revolution. Since it was written there have been reports of "security" concerns leading to suspension of the pilgrimage to a synagogue on Gherba island, and today came news of violence at a refugee camp. No social upheaval takes place without counter-currents, and these should not distract us from the courage and sincerity of those whom Amanda met.

'Every single moment of this revolution has been full of emotions. Sometimes glorious, other times complicated, sometimes full of sadness because you've lost someone shot in front of your eyes.' Ramy Sghayer is the one of one of Tunisia's youth organisers who always makes time for foreign visitors, explaining the successive waves of protest needed to dislodge not only the old dictator Zine Ben Ali but a whole structure of dictatorship and the systems that shored it up internationally.

'Our revolution overcomes the borders of Tunisia', he continues. 'It is a revolution for dignity and freedom in which every single human being is affected. We flew the Egyptian flag for Tahrir, and danced in the streets when Mubarak fell. We're waiting for Libya, watching Yemen and Syria. It's not only Tunisia's struggle but the struggle of the whole South under colonialism.

'I also joined a team at Ras Ajdir frontier camp, helping the refugees from Libya. I went with my friend Samir from Togo, we had the chance to serve food but sometimes felt it was even more important to listen and understand them. I'm co-ordinator of the youth commission for Amnesty, but I didn't go there officially but as a human rights defender and activist. '

I mentioned to Ramy my dismay at seeing bread and water sold at double the normal prices inside the refugee camps. He explained that the neighbouring border town Ben Guerdane had always lived by smuggling with Libya, and was now grabbing back some lost revenue. ' But many of my own friends are working here as volunteers without asking for a thing except somewhere to stay, living on a sandwich, just helping on principle'. On my own visit to the camp, UNHCR officials confirmed the unprecedented generosity not only of their 200 Tunisian volunteers , but the daily relief trips from ordinary people and the unusual co-operation in keeping the camp safe and running the hospital.

Two days later the people of Ben Guerdane taught us all a lesson by holding a demonstration of their own, demanding their right to be considered for jobs in the camp and to help the refugees themselves. Their offer is being accepted - one example of ways that the new wave of direct action includes entirely unexpected groups of people.

The safety of Jews and minorities inside Tunisia has become one touchstone for the democratic revolution. There have been suspicions that elements of the old regime's security forces were behind synagogue arson, and whoever was responsible the people I met were determined to prevent such attacks. As with the rights of women, the fight to end political impunity and prosecute those who killed unarmed demonstrators, the desperate need for employment, this issue too has sparked off multitudinous debates and a real sense that talking is a political good in itself.

When I visited in April, hosted by the General Union of Tunisian Workers and the Tunisian League of Human Rights, I and my fellow guest Rita Freire from Brazil's online news network Ciranda walked along the grand avenues of Tunis, moving from markets of crowded shoppers to equally crowded political discussions swirling into different small groups and coming together again. One of the Tunisians said to us then: ''We talk, we discuss things publicly for the first time in our lives, and in the end the bad gets driven out and the good comes to the top.'

Tunisians are massively enjoying the thrill of political discussion. 'Sixty percent of Tunisians have told a poll that they want to be involved in politics! Before, it was only football' said Fabio, an Italian who has lived in Tunisia for eight years and wants to start up a new kind of travel, not insulating visitors in zones touristiques but taking them to meet people and see 'the real Tunisia'.

That Tunisie profonde is the interior where the revolutions began.

The revolution in Tunisia is seen as bloodless, but not when you reach small towns where almost everyone knows someone who died, or was injured, or mentally traumatised. This was a war zone.

In Sidi Bouzid , Nejib Beyoui of the teacher's union told us how teachers, lawyers and doctors formed a Support Committee after Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself, at first just to get him to a proper hospital 'and to ask for work and dignity'. The trade unionists stood in the streets for 13 days being teargassed and beaten, while the town's young people stayed up all night and were shot with live ammunition. Then the uprising spread to nearby Kasserine, where a local factory owner posted snipers on the roof of his building: 52 people were killed and 600 wounded. Hunger strikes and self-immolation continue, alongside tremendous achievements in self-organisation. These towns feel they have been left alone.

We need to change that. Munira Thibia, a young homeless woman who became famous for her bravery in the uprising , asked us: 'Please let our stories be known'. They need twinning, solidarity actions, and keeping communications open. Nasri Charfeddine of the new unemployed graduates' organisation Elkarama wants to start up community radio so the region can speak for itself: email: Facebook: Nasricharfi@live.Fr

Wael Karaffi, who has lost a leg at only 19, spoke with the dignity which Tunisia expects from all its revolutionaries: 'Those who killed, one wants to see judged not killed. We sacrificed for this nation so we want our voices to be heard. If not, we will go back on the streets to remake the revolution. We don't want money, we want to be seen and heard. I've made a big sacrifice - I hope you won't forget my message.'

British soldiers returning wounded from wars of empire are getting the best surgery, prosthetics and rehab, but these who overthrew a dictator and 'fought only with their voices' are being left disabled and without redress against the police who killed their friends.

To join the appeal to bring specialist medical and legal help to the survivors and activists, contact: or

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