Fear changes sides in Tunisia
May 23rd, 2011
KASSERINE, INSIDE THE TUNISIAN REVOLUTION. CHRONIC from the 13th to the 18th of January 2011.

By Caroline Poiron

The town of Kasserine lies near the Algerian border, in the shadow of Jebel ech Chambi, Tunisia's highest peak. The blood spilt here over one weekend in January transformed what had been a regional uprising into a genuinely nationwide movement.

It was the massacring of protesters in the center of the country that pushed the Tunisian middle classes into the streets.

The bloodshed lasted from January 8-12. Under pressure from protesters and the military, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to call an end to the shooting of protesters. At least 21 people were killed with live ammunition in Kasserine and Thala between January 8 and 12, according to Human Rights Watch.

On the 13th of January, I arrived with a French television team in the city of Kasserine. Stores were closed, and the army was positioned in a protective cordon around administration buildings.  Our first stop was at the Court of Justice, to visit with lawyers. They were happy to see journalists, the first ones in a very long time. They described to us the terrible scene that had happened three days ago and told us that they too had been targeted while demonstrating.

Many people heard about our arrival and came outside to meet us. Some came directly up to us and showed us the bloody shirts worn by victims of the massacre by the police. During the uprising, the police were called up for duty. Some were used as snipers or to commit acts of vandalism, while others feigned pro-Ben Ali protests, such as the one on the night of Ben Ali's speech.

At the hospital, three days after the massacre, doctors were still dealing with the wounded. Family members cried over the deaths of loved ones.

On the 14th of January, Former Tunisian President Zain El-Abedine Ben Ali quit office after 23 years in power and fled the country after handing over authority to his prime minister. In Kassserine, the young people celebrated the end of the regime in the streets, pulling down all symbols and monuments of Ben Ali's regime.

As the days pass in the city, the police and new elements, militia of the elite presidential guard are entrenched behind the National Guard building with all their arms. Just one day after the fall of Ben Ali, the population of Kasserine asked the military to arrest the snipers and send them to prison.  Thousands of Tunisian were singing the National Anthem during the extradition of 45 police officers, members of what they called "the death squad".  One militiaman wanted to flee with his arms but he was quickly stopped, beaten and arrested by a crowd, and handed over to the army. Fear had changed sides. A man hunt had begun. Police officers and regional business leaders were the new suspects and targets of looting by the inhabitants of Kasserine. Ali Gueriri, a businessman, industrialist and smuggler, was robbed and arrested on suspicion of hiding weapons and sheltering members of the Trebalsi family.
The day after that, the population liberated the prison and its 500 prisoners to celebrate the uprising and the subsequent fall of the regime. The prisoners fled home to their families. 

At the "Public Café," prisoners and residents sit down and sip a coffee together. On top of the door of the coffee shop, you can read in Arabic "Café Public" written with the blood of the martyrs, the young ones who died for their freedom.


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