Smuggling and jihad are among the few ways to make money in central Tunisia. Post-revolution the situation has grown even more dangerous and desperate.
The terrorists arrived on New Year’s Eve and stayed late into the night. The old farmer smiles shyly as he describes the encounter. His children play in front of his whitewashed house and two spotted cats doze lazily in the sun, while women tend to chores on the small farm. There is no road that leads to this place in the wilds of the central western Tunisian governorate of Kasserine, an hour’s drive from the Algerian border. Visitors have to travel on foot through a dried-out wadi to reach it.
“They offered me 400 dinars,” he says, still amazed, as a tethered mule looks on curiously. “They wanted a donkey, a few blankets and dishes.” An opportunity like that rarely comes to a man such as himself, the farmer says, adding that he immediately asked the masked men to join him for a meal out of pure fear and anxiety. The scorched patch of earth where they built a fire and welcomed the New Year together is still visible today.
Apart from getting high, young people here have nothing. The story of the generous terrorists quickly made the rounds. The cash they offered amounted to around $170, a lot of money in one of the poorest areas of the country, with a long history of political and economic dislocation. Around 450,000 people live in the governorate at the foothills of the Atlas mountains. One fifth reside in the regional capital, also called Kasserine, where a few years ago only a quarter of households were connected to the public water network, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The situation there is symptomatic of the fact that around 75 per cent of the country’s economy centres around the Tunisian coast. Outside large cities such as the capital Tunis, there are hardly any legal job opportunities for well-trained people. Unemployment in Kasserine is around 23 per cent, well above the national average and rising, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Development. The number of people living in poverty there is also twice as high as the Tunisian average, reaching 32 per cent on a similar upward trend.
These are the kind of circumstances that led Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, just an hour’s drive from Kasserine. The December 2010 incident was the catalyst for the Tunisian civil uprising that led then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down and sparked the political unrest across the Middle East and North Africa that has been widely called the Arab Spring.
In October 2016, similarly disastrous conditions prompted a group of more than two dozen unemployed college graduates to take too many drugs and attempt mass suicide in front of a provincial administration building. And even though these protesters survived, unlike Bouazizi, their situation remains as hopeless.
A dangerous trade
A toxic atmosphere of chronic dissatisfaction laden with anxiety about the future drives young people – men in particular – into illegal activity. Smuggling of all kinds is omnipresent. In Sbeitla, the second largest city in the governorate, entire extended families rely on the income from this business. The porous Algerian border is just too tempting. From there, dozens of cars, pickups and SUVs set off daily towards Tunisia, most commonly loaded with cheap gasoline, in addition to tyres, air conditioners, copper, cigarettes, vodka and even weapons.
It’s a dangerous trade. Sometimes a highly flammable cargo ignites because of a carelessly discarded cigarette. The drivers are often young family men who lose not only their vehicles and freedom, but also their lives, in car chases with police that are becoming ever more dangerous. “Since the revolution, the business has become even harder. Many police check cars on mere suspicion,” says a smuggler who wants to remain anonymous. He describes how he was once arrested in the hospital emergency room after his pickup overturned due to a ruptured tyre. He still has a dent in his skull to show for it.
Law enforcement actually often tolerates the illegal activities, a number of smugglers report. Those who only bring Algerian gas across the border usually have nothing to worry about – even police vehicles fill up with the contraband fuel. There are garages full of empty fuel canisters all over Sbeitla, where improvised gas stations along access roads offer drivers the chance to fill up for around 20 per cent less than the prices at legitimate outlets. In Kasserine, apparently not even the police have money to spare.
The people demand jobs, because without that there is no dignity in life. But more than just gasoline comes across the border – drugs also find their way from Morocco and Mali through Algeria to Tunisia. And here the police take a harder line, says Ahmad, a dealer. The lanky man in his mid-thirties wrings his hands while sitting on his sofa at home, nervously pulling on a cigarette. He's been in prison five times, and began smuggling drugs again each time he was released.
Now his house is secured with several surveillance cameras that have him always in sight. “In a good deal I earn up to 12,000 dinars [more than $5,000],” Ahmad says. He regularly smuggles several hundred kilos of Moroccan hashish, he says. The drug trade is strictly organised by a secretive criminal cell. He doesn't know who they are, and has only a few phone numbers that link him to those behind the business, which makes billions. “I deliver the goods all the way to Europe. To Spain, France and Germany,” he says, exposing a row of damaged teeth.
His mother offers sugared dates and Fanta to her son’s guests, while his nephews watch television in the adjacent room. Do people buy drugs in Kasserine too? “Of course,” he says. “Apart from getting high, young people here have nothing.”
Outside it’s growing dark, a time of day when foreigners in particular shouldn’t stray far from the city’s lighted streets. Gunshots ring through the night. It must be a wedding, Ahmad says. Two nights later, shots fall again just kilometres away in the remote town of Khmouda. But this time they aren’t accompanied by the cheers of a marriage celebration – they’re fired by terrorists coming from the mountains to attack a Tunisian National Guard post.
Thickly wooded slopes with the country’s highest peaks surround Kasserine along the northeastern part of the Tell Atlas mountain range. Smugglers travel along the passes that criss-cross the rugged terrain, which also harbour the Uqba ibn Nafi terrorist brigade that made the farmer an offer he couldn't refuse.
“Don’t worry, we don’t belong to Islamic State,” they assured him. “We don’t cut off our enemies’ heads, though we do keep sex slaves.” These were hardly comforting statements, the farmer said. Terrorists here are practised in battle and anything but squeamish, if the series of attacks that have rocked Kasserine in recent years are any indication. Among them was the most devastating attack on the Tunisian army since independence in 1956, with fifteen soldiers killed during two ambushes on Jebel ech Chambi in the summer of 2014.
Living in fear
A high-ranking security official from the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimates that the group consists of about 70 armed men. Named after General Uqba ibn Nafi, the governor of the seventh-century Umayyad caliphate in North Africa, the terrorist brigade has been active since the fall of Ben Ali, hiding in the mountains near Kasserine since 2012. They are thought to be well-trained and in possession of machine guns, land mines, rocket-propelled grenades and night vision devices. Today the group is committed to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), although there are rumours that the brigade has sworn its alliance to Daesh, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It’s little wonder that residents at the foot of the mountains live in fear, about 30 minutes’ drive from the nearest major settlement. Locals used to venture up the slopes to gather herbs and firewood, the farmer says. But now people are too afraid of being surprised by members of the brigade. This means the loss of yet another source of income.
Many Kasserine residents would like to see a greater presence of security forces in the region, even though the terrorists have previously directed their attacks mainly against government facilities like barracks or police stations. But the military only secures a few important access roads and otherwise leaves people to their fate, some local teachers on their way home from work report. Residents don’t even dare go to the small municipal cemetery after dark.
Not far from the school, a group of construction workers building a small outbuilding angrily describe the situation. “We have never seen a camera here that belongs to anyone interested in us or our lives,” says one worker, waving his arms as his colleagues nod grimly. “If this continues, then people here are going to go join the brigade and fight.” He looks more tired than threatening.
The men make it clear that without help from the state they expect nothing of their future. Still, they insist that young people should at least have a chance. Due to the school’s secluded location, one teacher refused to take on the first and second grade classes. He was afraid of being kidnapped, they say. Now some grades don’t have lessons in mathematics or Arabic.
Faced with this situation, Youcef Chahbi sighs. A history teacher and imam of a mosque near Sbeitla, he ministers to the locals and understands the community’s fears. He formulates his criticisms carefully, though. “I wish the authorities would communicate their actions better,” he says. “People need to know that something is being done about the danger in the mountains, in addition to the economic situation.”
Shaking up the capital
But in Tunis, on the sixth floor of the building where the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) does its work, such problems seem distant. The air conditioner hums cheerfully along with the pleasant sound of spoons stirring cups of coffee. Sitting behind her large desk, Wided Bouchamaoui exudes confidence. The 55-year-old businesswoman led the employers’ organisation in its involvement with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning National Dialogue Quartet. The group of organisations won the prize in 2015 for its work to further democracy in the wake of the revolution. Tunisia is already on the right track, she says, but “the people demand jobs, because without that there is no dignity in life”.
Bouchamaoui says all the right things. She speaks of the difficulties brought on by the revolution, and of long-overdue education reforms, problems getting loans, and the necessary decentralisation of the country. Yet many Tunisians say that the daughter of a business magnate – who made a successful living under autocrat Ben Ali – has neither the ability nor the will to change the situation in places like Kasserine.
At least that’s how Ayachi, Aknom and Yasmine see it. The Kasserine locals are part of a group of 29 men and five women who have been camping outside the Ministry of Labour in Tunis.
Like tens of thousands of other Tunisians, all three are unemployed despite their college degrees. The police aren’t quite sure how to handle their protest, which has garnered media coverage. At any rate, the Labour Minister doesn’t enter the building through the front door any longer. Encountering the angry protesters appears to be too unpleasant.
In 2011, many of the demonstrators were proud revolutionaries who risked their lives for the uprising they hoped would bring change. And now? “It feels like a knife in the back,” Ayachi says. His fellow protesters nod silently. Comments like his are commonplace in Kasserine. “Here we have no future,” a petrol smuggler says. Another man, a young father, concludes: “Since the revolution, life has become even harder.”
The way Imam Youcef Chahbi sees it, jobs are the key. “Without jobs, hatred grows, and thanks to hatred, terrorism is strengthened.” Many young people say they would emigrate to Europe if they could. The spring, it seems, never arrived in the mountains of Kasserine.
With reporting by Sabrine Chahbi and Robert Chatterjee. Translated by Kristen Allen.