OUESLATIA, TUNISIA – The day Anis Amri became Europe’s most-wanted man was also his 24th birthday.
His 4-year-old niece, Zeineb, was running puzzled from the doorstep outside her grandmother’s simple one-story home in his home town in central Tunisia, to the bare room where the family – Anis Amri’s mother, Nour, 60, five sisters and two brothers – sat, their heads in their hands, not knowing whether to doubt or despair over the news they were being confronted with.
Zeineb seemed clueless but intrigued by the constant trickle of strangers – journalists, camera crews and Tunisian police were taking turns at entering the house to speak to the family.
The women’s eyes were red, their faces swollen from crying.
Anis's 30-year-old brother, Walid, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, looked pale and distraught as he offered apologies to the families of the victims in Berlin.
Zeineb’s mother, Sayida Amri, still believed in her brother’s innocence, but called on him to turn himself over to the police, to prove that he was the wrong guy.
“If it’s true what we are hearing, he has brought shame on the family, and shame on this country," she said, her voice breaking.
To console them, Zeineb, her hair braided tightly, huddled up to her mother, her aunts and her grandmother.
Anis Amri had spoken to Zeineb and Nour on Sunday, the day before he allegedly launched the deadly attack on a packed Christmas market in Berlin.
Nour pulled out Anis’s old ID card: the passport-size picture shows a fresh faced, 17-year-old young man who, according to his mother, used to check in with her and the rest of the family on a regular basis, and took an interest in knowing about the hobbies of his nieces and nephews.
Outside the house, Tunisian and international camera crews swarmed the neighborhood to report on the man who has become Oueslatia’s most famous son – for all the wrong reasons.
Oueslatia lies in a remote, underdeveloped part of central Tunisia.
Driving from the capital, Tunis, the route leads through mountainous terrain, past pine trees and verdant green meadows.
As one enters the town, the ubiquitous stacked bottles and canisters filled with gasoline suggest that in terms of economic opportunities, Oueslatia, like many other places in this part of the country, has little more to offer to its residents than selling smuggled fuel.
In 2011, in the weeks following the Tunisian revolution, Amri and many others here left by boat to Europe, looking for better opportunities, according to his family.
More young men left the country in the years that followed, according to reports.
An estimated 40 people allegedly have traveled not to Europe but to Syria and Iraq, in order to join armed groups fighting there.
After Amri made it to Italy, he spent time in prison in Sicily.
His family says he maintained his innocence throughout, and spoke in letters to them of participating in theater and cookery courses.
Struggling with the language, and feeling homesick in Germany, Amri had told the family that next year – 2017 – would be the year of his return to Tunisia.
The Amris were looking forward to having their youngest brother back.
They describe their brother as someone who used to crack jokes to cheer them up, someone who was affectionate, funny and full of life.
Little did they know that they would spend the day Anis turned 24 wondering how to square the memory of a brother they loved dearly with reports of a man who allegedly steered the truck that killed 12 people in Berlin.