Guest Post: Byrne in Tunisia

The pictures and text below are contributed by Eileen Byrne, a Tunis-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the Sunday Times, the GuardianFinancial Times, and the Economist — placed here with permission. They were first published on the Tunisian news website Kapitalis. Readers will recall that last year she contributed to this blog a video on Tunisia and a guest post on a short trip across the border into Libya. In February she traveled to rural western Tunisia, which has had a hard time since last year’s revolution economically and socially, with unemployment and poverty (not to mention some terrible weather). In the town of Kasserine she found wide-scale corruption around a government jobs scheme, which she wrote about the Guardian in February. All pictures copyright Eileen Byrne.

There is a lot of good news that comes out of Tunisia and into English; the country has done much better than some of the other “Arab Spring” countries that are now engaged in muddled transitions and the leftover rivalries and troubles that come out of armed conflict. But there is still a lot of suffering in Tunisia, a lot of hunger, a lot of people that need somebody to pay attention to them.

Western Tunisia: At the Grassroots 

From Magdoundech village, Kasserine region, Fatma Zein Chaabani had walked into the scrub land near the village to dig up some roots to burn during the cold spell that eventually brought snow in February. She lives alone with her only son, who is unemployed. For the last 10 years she has received 70 dinars ($46) allowance from the state each month.  Magdoundech has electricity, but the nearest water supply is some kilometers away across the fields. Villagers, including elderly women, fetch the water in large plastic containers on their backs, or on mules.

Three young men from Magdoundech village. They occasionally find one or two days work digging irrigation channels for local farmers, earning 8-10 dinars (up to $6.60) a day. They say that places on the job creation schemes funded by central government are, in the Kasserine region, still controlled by individuals associated with the former ruling party, the now dissolved RCD. If the land around the village was irrigated, the boys say, the village could grow potatoes, tomatoes and peppers as well as the olives it already grows. Most of the village didn’t vote in the October elections for a constituent assembly, because to register as a voter you had to travel into Kasserine town, and the cost of doing so put people off, they say. Chaaer, 15, in the centre, has recently dropped out of high school. Haythem Chaabani, 20, on the right, left before he had secured his high-school certificate due to the cost of transport into town, his teacher there confirmed. “The days we eat meat — about once a week — we go to bed smiling,” he says. Are they on Facebook? They laugh. No-one in the village has internet access.

Abderrahman Jaballa, of Hay Karma neighbourhood in the town of Kasserine, with his daughter. He has five children, their ages ranging from 18 years to 11 months. The baby has stomach problems, and Mr Jaballa has applied for the “white card” that is given out to some low-income families, exempting them from medical charges in public hospitals. In the days of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the white cards were given out by local interior ministry representatives. So far Mr Jaballa has not secured a a white card, and the family receives no state benefits. Over the last three weeks, he has in total had just two days work as a general labourer, paid at 10 dinars a day. “Look at my daughter, she is 10-years-old” but seems small for her age, he says.

 A street market in Jendouba, north-west Tunisia. “Europe-Afrique” is how local people refer to the trade in “fripes” (French for secondhand clothes). Garments discarded by Europeans are shipped in bulk to the Mediterranean port of Tabarka. In warehouses there they are baled up to be traded on to other African countries, locals explain, while some are sold in Tunisia itself. Despite the image of sleek prosperity that the Ben Ali regime projected to the outside world, stalls selling secondhand clothes, shoes, belts and bags are found in markets across Tunisia, including in the capital. In Jendouba, the importer who dominates the trade there previously had to secure “protection” from the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi, local people explain. With the Trabelsis no longer on the scene, he is doing very well without them.
The former regional headquarters of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD) in the western city of Kef. In towns across the country, RCD offices were attacked, looted and burnt as the revolution gathered pace through late December 2010 and the first half of January 2011. Many still stand empty, pending decisions on alternative uses.
The “delegate” or local interior ministry official, in the small town of Ghardimaou, near the border with Algeria, on February 1, 2012. He had had a difficult morning, and had only just closed this office after receiving a queue of petitioners. Outside, the building is protected by soldiers. Earlier that morning, the official responsible for distributing fortnightly places on a job creation scheme in the forestry sector had not shown up for work, and a crowd of around 200 angry job applicants had headed en masse to the delegate’s office, he explained. When he went outside to talk to them, one of the young men began to insult him. The delegate decided to go back inside: “I’m here to work, not to be insulted.” He has been in government service since early December; before that he worked in the insurance sector. Did he try calling the regional governor in Jendouba for advice? “I’m not sure there is a regional governor in Jendouba right now.” The delegate is himself responsible for allocating places on job creation schemes in street cleaning. He consults with a committee of five, and they try to allocate places fairly, to members of the most needy families in Ghardimaou.
 Outside Kasserine regional governor’s office, Feb 2: Every Tuesday and Thursday people from the poorer neighbourhoods of Kasserine town, and some from impoverished villages outside the town, gather at the regional governor’s office seeking work or financial aid. The custom started when a previous governor, in 2011, used to receive petitioners on these days. On this day in February, however, the office was largely closed and guarded by soldiers; staff were on strike demanding better security in their work. The people waiting outside said: “Every day they tell us to come back later,” and “Here in Kasserine there are the old thieves and the new thieves.” In the mayor’s office, meanwhile, officials said corruption around the job creation schemes in Kasserine — which expanded dramatically last year in the aftermath of the revolution — has extended to include some lower-level staff in the regional governor’s office.
A former soldier at a “sit-in” for jobs, Kasserine town.Now an unemployed graduate, he did military service that was extended to two years. After the two years were up last year, he applied to continue in the army as an IT specialist, but was not selected. Now he lives in a tent at a sit-in outside a ministry office in Kasserine, demanding jobs for the unemployed. At night, he sleeps in the men’s tent, while his wife — they got married in January — sleeps in a nearby building with the women. The day after Ben Ali fell in January 2011, he recalls, the soldiers were told that if members of the public attempted to seize their weapons they should first shoot in the air. If that didn’t work, they had the right to fire at protesters’ legs, they were told. “It wasn’t an easy thing, to think about maybe having to do that.”

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