After 15 years working and five weeks hiding in Libya, Mohammed Ibrahim, his five youngest children, his wife and his brother came home to Tunisia Tuesday morning.
Last month, amid rising tensions between the two countries, as many as 2,000 Tunisians a day were forced out of Libya through this windblown border crossing by the Mediterranean. But by the time the Ibrahims came out, there were only 14 left here.
They were, they said, the last of their compatriots to leave the area around Tarhunah where they had worked. More than 25,000 Tunisians were expelled between Aug. 5 and Sept. 5.
Many Tunisian officials portray the expulsions as part of a broad, conscious pattern of efforts by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to undermine the prowestern Tunisian government, which already faces serious social tensions, increasingly restive and resentful unions and an awkward lack of direction as President Habib Bourguiba becomes older and more conspicuously infirm. Since the beginning of the year, Qaddafi has cut off imports from Tunisia and barred Libyan tourists from visiting here. The lost income to Tunis is estimated at $144 million. Yet there are also suspicions among some opposition figures and diplomats that the Tunisian government is exploiting and, to some extent, exaggerating the crisis to try to keep the unions quiet a while longer, making the opposition seem unpatriotic at a moment of national danger.
In August, at the peak of the crisis, alarms were raised of impending military confrontations. Officials here say there were Libyan jets and Libyan helicopters reconnoitering along the frontier.
But there is no visible sign of military buildups now. Diplomats and senior government officials in Tunis said in interviews this week that earlier reports that Libya was deploying 25,000 extra troops to the border were false. An Egyptian newspaper account of a mutiny by Libyan officers refusing to attack Tunisia, these officials said, remains completely unsubstantiated.
Yet if the immediate sense of crisis has waned, the tension on this long, hot border remains.
No one seems to know what Qaddafi's next move might be, or why the flow of refugees has subsided.
The status of approximately 60,000 Tunisians still living in Libya's cities is unclear, and Tunisia increasingly sees them as hostages to Qaddafi's caprices.
The Tunisian government has called on those of its teachers, technicians and engineers who remain there to come home.
"They could still be used by Qaddafi for more blackmail," said a Tunisian official. But he also said he hoped Libya would find it hard to function without them. They are said to be vital to its bakeries, its hotels and its elementary schools.
Earlier, Tunisia ordered 283 Libyans, including 30 diplomats, out of the country on charges of subversion and spying.
At a news conference Saturday, the Tunisian secretary of state for national security, Zine Abidine Ben Ali, presented a case against three Libyans charged with plotting to blow up a tourist hotel.
Although there has not been a formal break in relations, neither is there much hope of normalization.
"We remain neighbors, and we would like to have good relations," Tunisian Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi said in an interview, but "I think it is difficult to go back now" to cordial ties.
The crisis of the last few weeks is only the most recent of a long series of difficult moments in Tunisian-Libyan relations since 1974, when Bourguiba signed a union with Qaddafi and then almost immediately reneged on it.
In 1976 Libya expelled almost 7,000 Tunisians. In 1978 there were suspicions that Qaddafi had a hand in the riots that shook Tunis that year. Then, in 1980, Libyan-trained Tunisian commandos seized the town of Gafsa and tried to launch an uprising. Yet these confrontations always were smoothed over after a few months.
Tunisia, with only 7 million inhabitants, tried to stay on good terms with its richer and more populous neighbors. "We don't have much hope left for that," as far as Qaddafi's government is concerned, Caid Essebsi said.
For workers like Ibrahim, however, it is a question of how to make a new life.
Employment in rich, neighboring Libya offered economic possibilities unmatched in Tunisia.
As Ibrahim sat here at the customs shed, his face was hard and weathered behind a distinguished gray mustache.
A farm machinery repairman in Libya, Ibrahim had bought a refrigerator, a gas heater, a television set and even a video cassette recorder there. But he left them behind with friends, he said, rather than have them confiscated at the border.
Ibrahim looked at his remaining possessions in the customs area: three broken plastic suitcases tied with shreds of material, a child's cardboard overnight bag, a few sheets in a cheap flight bag, a pile of sheepskins, a bundle of thin blankets, an umbrella, a deflated soccer ball.
He did not want to talk.
"I don't know anything about Qaddafi," he said. "If things go well between Tunisia and Libya, I stay there. If not, I come back here. That is all I know."