A Tunisian revolution that's more bloody than jasmine
In this hardscrabble corner of southern Tunisia, near the Algerian border, "Jasmine Revolution" seems a misnomer for the popular uprising that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Jasmine suggests the middle-class villas in greater Tunis, their outer walls covered with sweet-scented vines. "Jasmine Revolution" suggests intellectuals, artists and professionals bringing a police state to its knees by marching arm-in-arm.
Tunisia indeed has a large middle class, and educated, relatively well-off Tunisians played a key role in toppling the regime. But in Qasserine and several surrounding cities that consider themselves the cradle of the revolution, the story has been more about blood than jasmine.
Human Rights Watch collected the names of 17 residents of Qasserine whom police gunned down during street protests Jan. 8-10. Six died around the same period in the smaller city of Tala, about 25 miles north. These two cities lost more than the official number of 21 dead nationwide that the Ben Ali government gave shortly before collapsing; the exact toll is not yet known. But to the west, five more died in Regueb and two in Menzel Bouzaiane. In the center of this region lies Sidi Bouzid, the city where the peddler Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, triggering the revolt. Police also shot protesters in the capital, but this southern region bore the brunt of the casualties.
The provisional government says 78 died nationwide and has declared three days of mourning.
Qasserine is the other Tunisia, where most people say their main demand is jobs, and the most-chanted slogan was "Khoubz wa ma', Ben Ali la!" ("Bread and water, Ben Ali no!").
The frustration here was not well known because until Ben Ali fell, virtually no foreign journalist or human rights researcher could usefully visit this inland region. If the secret police did not spot and turn you back, you would have found almost no resident willing to speak honestly, for fear of a harsh interrogation or worse. This was confirmed to me by several residents, now basking in the sudden profusion of television crews profiling their revolt and poverty - including reporters from Tunisia's reborn state television, who during Ben-Ali's 23-year authoritarian rule came here only to film ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Qasserinites earned this attention the hard way. My colleagues and I spoke with families, eyewitnesses, medical officials and others here and in Tala last week who told us how riot police units brought in from elsewhere fired live ammunition at protesters, hitting them fatally in the groin, abdomen or head, and striking several in the back. Most protests were peaceful; in others, youths burned tires and threw rocks and in some instances Molotov cocktails. But the accounts we heard suggest that security forces routinely shot to kill, including in situations that could not be considered life-threatening, such as when youths hurled stones and set tires aflame after police used tear gas to disperse residents marching in a youth's funeral procession Jan. 10.
The fatal shootings enraged Tunisians nationwide. It is one thing to know that you live in a police state, another to see the police mow down your countrymen. In the bread riots of 1984, Qasserine residents - now the parents of the youths who revolted this month - took to the streets and paid a heavy price. Since Ben Ali became president in 1987, Tunisians have had no experience of the police killing demonstrators on this scale - for the simple reason that the police rarely allowed demonstrations to get off the ground.
When police repression did not end the recent unrest, Gen. Rachid Ammar, commander of the army, reportedly refused to order his troops to fire on protesters. Qasserine residents say that on the afternoon of Jan. 10, the army suddenly replaced the anti-riot police in the city. Soldiers have since handled the continuing demonstrations without major incident.
In Qasserine, a well-informed medical source laid out the forensic evidence that the police had shot to kill, then asked me not to cite him by name. "We don't know where this [revolution] is going," he said. "The agents who killed all these people are still out there, with their guns."
The residents of this region are breathing easier, but many voice a second demand alongside their continuing call for more jobs: punish those who killed their sons and brothers.
It is not only grieving families who have an interest in accountability. If Tunisia is to erect a rights-respecting security apparatus to replace one based on torture and intimidation, it needs to bring perpetrators to justice and establish a full, public record of the price paid in blood for the "Jasmine Revolution."
The writer is deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.