‘Two sons of this family have become IS-fighters. One died in Libya, the other one is fighting in Syria.’ All too often we wrongly associate the family with the violent acts of their sons. And all too often the family ends up in a paralyzing depression. Therefore it is absolutely admirable how Fatma embodies peaceful activism, hope and strength in such catastrophic circumstances.
PIETER STOCKMANS and MONTASSER ALDE’EMEH
The brother of a Tunisian IS-fighter sat down in front of us and asked: ‘Do you have permission from the intelligence services to talk to me? No? Then I can’t talk to you.’ And off he went. So we are crossing the desert on our way to his town Oueslatia to find out who his brother was. His name is Bilal al-Kabi and he blew himself up in Benghazi, Libya. The family received a short message: “Your brother is a martyr.”
We will stay here for a while, because since the revolution (apart from the hundreds of youth who left to Lampedusa as clandestine migrants) about 30 youth from this sleepy desert town left to Syria, Iraq and Libya. What happened here will teach us a lot about the explosive cocktail that turns ordinary Tunisian boys into fighting machines.
We drove one hour through inhospitable terrain. This lamentable town belongs to the province of Kairouan, but is miles away from any major city. Empty, dead, abandoned and groaning under a scorching heat. We seemed to have ended up in an American Western film.
On our way to Oueslatia, TunisiaThe brother of a Tunisian IS-fighter sat down in front of us and asked: ‘Do you have permission from the intelligence services to talk to me? No? Then I can’t talk to you.’ And off he went. So we are crossing the desert on our way to his town Oueslatia to find out who his brother was. His name is Bilal al-Kabi and he blew himself up in Benghazi, Libya. The family received a short message: “Your brother is a martyr.” We will stay here for a while, because since the revolution (apart from the hundreds of youth who left to Lampedusa as clandestine migrants) about 30 youth from this sleepy desert town left to Syria, Iraq and Libya. What happened here will teach us a lot about the explosive cocktail that turns ordinary Tunisian boys into fighting machines.
Posted by Tussen Vrijheid en Geluk on woensdag 12 augustus 2015
Adel Ftaiti greeted us. Adel is the son of the former imam of the main mosque. Today he is an activist for ATIDE, an NGO defending democracy and monitoring elections.
– ‘The al-Kabi family refused to speak with you. But I know another family. Their son Khalid is an IS-fighter. Their other son Walid died in Libya.’
Tunisian IS fighters have a reputation for being ruthless and cruel. But immediately one question surfaced: how can this family remain standing with this stigma and the loss of a son?
Adel said the family has seen enough journalists. So we decided to call the family to clarify that we would not catch their story and portray the whole family as terrorists, as so many Tunisian and foreign journalists had already done. We would come as journalists, of course, but also as human beings willing to understand the pain of another human being and explain it to others.
Adel explained what happened to this town.
– ‘After the revolution thousands of young people escaped our city to Lampedusa. Some boys who found different things on their path towards escape, are now in Syria. It depends on the circumstances, but basically they have something in common: they dream of a paradise, Europe or jihad, paradise in this world or the next. Immediately after the revolution our mosque was taken over by political Salafists. They just changed the lock. The judge intervened, but the government never implemented the decision. Ennahdha, the Islamist party in the government, took a lax attitude towards the Salafists. After the assassination of seven soldiers in the Chaambi mountains next to the Algerian border, we heard people in our mosque shout “Takbir! Allah akbar!” As if they booked a victory over the state. Shortly before the boys started leaving for Libya and Syria, we saw them work out in groups on the football field. Heavy military training. The police did not intervene. This all happened under the watchful eye of Ennahdha in the government.’
While we recovered from the heat with some fresh watermelons, Adel called the police to declare our presence in this city. We were worried. We still didn’t know whether the police wanted spy on us or protect us. Finally we ended up at the local police station: exactly what one would imagine thinking of a police station in a desert town. The policeman didn’t come much further than the obligatory “you are the only foreigners here, we want to protect you and welcome you with tea and coffee, Tunisia is a beautiful country, we’re glad you’re here, do not worry”.
The father of the family is a retired truck driver. Mother is a housewife. One of the sisters, Fatma* is a bio-engineer. The brother is a veterinarian. Another brother is a driver between Oueslatia and Tunis. And the two youngest brothers became IS-fighters. Fatma told the story of her twin brothers.
– ‘Khalid and Walid were twins. Before the revolution, the police repeatedly arrested Khalid for interrogation just because he was religious. Khalid always wanted to go to Gaza to help the Palestinians. He became Salafist. Walid mocked his clothing and strict religiosity. Walid was a macho, with gel in his hair and modern clothing. When I went to college, Walid phoned me constantly to ask how I was doing. He told me about his relations with girls.’
‘Khalid constantly quarrelled with his father, who was a member of the party of Ben Ali. His own son was constantly harassed by the Ben Ali regime and began to develop hatred against the state. Two months after his last arrest, the revolution began. Both Khalid and Walid participated in the protests of 2010-2011. When Ennahdha won the elections and entered the government, we could see how hopeful Khalid was. He immediately joined Ennahdha. He attended trainings on democracy. Today he is against democracy. He was an observer of the elections. Today he is against elections.’
– ‘Father always hated Ennahdha. Ennahdha played a game on the Salafists. They just wanted their votes in the first elections. That’s why they were so lax against acts of violence by Salafists. They let them take over mosques. In those days Khalid was glowing with strength and confidence. But I felt something was wrong. All those Salafists thought Ennahdha would introduce the Sharia, but it did not. So the Salafists became angry and some resorted to violence. Khalid got deeply disappointed in Ennahdha and started training. Ultimately he left with a group of youngsters to Libya and Syria.’
Khalid is now called Abu Haydara al-Tunisi. The last time the family heard from him was months ago, when he told his mother on Facebook that he participated in the battle against the Kurds in Kobani.
– ‘Maybe he died there, we don’t know. Ennahdha is responsible for the departure of Khalid, not for the departure of Walid. He just followed his brother. I knew immediately that we would also lose Walid, even though he was never a Salafist, not even religious. But the departure of Khalid was a shock to the whole family, especially to Walid. Constantly he told me that he wanted to go to his brother, his other half. On his Facebook account, I found a conversation with a person with a false identity, who encouraged him to go to Syria for jihad. That man – a Lebanese – promised him a sum of 1,600 dinars. Father took Walid to the police in Tunis, but the police did nothing. These dangerous recruiters need to be arrested.’
‘We had hoped that our voices in the media would urge the government to take action to protect other families, but nothing helped. IS propaganda is many times stronger. How is it possible that Walid still decided to leave, despite the pain of his mother, despite the fact that he was mother’s darling? He just wanted to go and help at a hospital in Benghazi. But he went to fight and now he’s dead.’
Fatma talked with strength and dignity. No tears blinked from her eyes. But after our conversation, she showed a photo of Walid’s dead body. On his face a calm smile. The sight of that picture penetrates her heart. Her brother is gone. And then the tears started.
– ‘One day I saw that picture on Facebook. We got a message: Walid is a martyr. I use the name and image of Walid as much as I can, as the password for our Wi-Fi network, as the background picture on my phone, so he remains alive. He is not dead. It seems he is still alive. It is impossible to close it if you can’t bury him, if you can’t say goodbye. He left, he stayed gone, and now he’s just gone forever. Something is broken inside of me.’
Children are pulled away from their families. It feels like a family whose children were killed or kidnapped.
A cousin of the family offers us a ride, all the way back to Kairouan: ‘Walid used to be my best playmate. His father, my uncle, is a different man since his sons are gone. I don’t recognize him anymore. Previously, he was a respected man in Oueslatia. Everybody knew him. Now he isolates himself and he stopped talking to anyone. He is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.’
In such situations, we see all too often that the victims end up in a paralyzing depression. Therefore, it is absolutely admirable how Fatma embodies hope and strength. She found work at an agency for ecotourism: Weslatia Trip Tours.
We’d almost forget that Oueslatia is loctated in the midst of breath-taking mountainous desert landscapes. Fatma is on a mission: ‘Terrorists often try to build their camps in harsh, mountainous regions. For now, Oueslatia is as safe as can be. But we should hurry and develop our region as a tourist area, build walking trails, organize trips and attract visitors, so we can integrate these areas into the rest of society. Isn’t it unbelievable that the government just allows the least developed regions and border areas with Algeria and Libya to be controlled by armed groups one by one? The whole economy is geared towards this criminal activity, and ordinary people get their income from smuggling and violence when these areas are not developed and people get no other source of income. Tourism against terrorism, that is our slogan.’
Read the other articles in our TUNISIA BLOG.
* Fake name to protect the privacy of the family.