The second instalment of a series of reports from a couple of CGT members visiting Tunisia. Here, the author visits the town of Thala in the northwest, where the people's protests led to the local police taking to their heels.
Thala, Kasserine governorate (province), 300 kms from the capital. A poor city, on the fringe, whose only resource is agriculture which depends on rainfall: wheat, prickly pears... without industry.
Upon our arrival, we were surprised to find an outdoor museum filled with graffiti. Graffiti demanding freedom and dignity, against Ben Ali and his henchmen, tributes to the 6 who died in the revolution, a sign of the inhabitants' desire to be true to their memory. The free expression of the people on the walls of this small, abandoned city of the Tunisian interior.
Young people throng around us to see us taking pictures of the graffiti. They tell us the story of their struggle. As early as 24th December they held their first solidarity march with Sidi Bouzid, where the first call in all of Tunisia was made demanding the fall of Ben Ali. On 3 January, students from the town's two schools - one at each end of the city - decided to protest. The principals of the schools called parents in an attempt to stop the students taking to the streets. But they only achieved the opposite: the parents joined their children and all the people took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration.
The hated Colonel Youssef Abdelaziz ordered to fire on the demonstrators. Marouan Jemli, 19, was the first martyr in Thala. The struggle not to lose his body, fearing that the police would try to hide their crime, caused a second death - another 19-year-old. Finally, the young people were able to carry Marouan's body to his grandmother's house after a 10-hour walk over mountain trails.
Marouan's funeral was used by the criminal colonel Youssef as an opportunity to shoot at the people carrying the coffin. A 32-year-old comrade who was preparing for his wedding in March and a disabled man were both hit by police bullets and died beside the coffin, the latter with five bullets in his body! The mothers had originally tried to carry the coffin themselves (in Muslim culture, it is the men who accompany the dead to the cemetery), but the young men instead had decided to carry it.
Between 3rd and 6th January, Thala - a town of 15,000 inhabitants - was completely surrounded by 1,800 police. It was impossible to leave or to enter. Supplies of water, bread and sugar were cut off. Cries were heard in every corner of Thala, "YES to bread and water, NO to Ben Ali". 150 people were imprisoned and a great many young men, women and children were tortured and abused. But through Facebook and other social networks, the young were able to publish videos of the repression and publicise the police murder of 5 young people and their siege of the town.
On 8th January, Col. Youssef was overthrown and replaced by another police chief. But the movement had spread throughout Tunisia and the rebellion had reached the capital. On 12th January, yet another person was killed by the police outside his home. New police chief, new murder.
The orders to the police in the early days were clear: crush the rebellion in the Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine (home to Thala) governorates in order to prevent it from spreading to the rest of Tunisia. The 1,800 police officers who surrounded the town for days had clear orders to kill, to crush resistance, like elsewhere.
Thala, a town without police, without a municipality, managed by the people
But Thala, a town with a revolutionary tradition, resisted and won. Today, there are no police in town. Young people take it in turns to deal with security. Only the military presence reminds us that there is a state.
The committee to safeguard the revolution runs the town and has "justice for our dead" as its prime demand. They have submitted a list of people involved in the killings, complete with names, and for 17 days in March they organised demonstrations to demand the imprisonment and trial of the murderers. The Justice Department of the interim government has asked for 15 days in which to respond. If in the first week of April there is no answer, the struggle will be taken up again.
They do not recognize President Fouad Mebazaa, nor prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi. They are calling for the dissolution of the three councils that have been created: the political and constitutional reform council, the council investigating the repression since 17th December and the anti-corruption council. They do not trust them, as they were created by Ghannouchi and are filled with people from Ben Ali's RCD party. How can they investigate themselves?
The police station transformed into a social centre
After the death of Marouan, his friends were consumed with anger. One of them, filling his motorbike with petrol, set it on fire and crashed it into the police station, causing a fire that forced the police to leave the town.
On 17th February, Nemri Bassem, a mechanical engineer unemployed since 2004, occupied the police station and stayed there, demanding his right to work. This action is only one of hundreds of actions that have been carried out in Tunisia by the Union of Unemployed Graduates.
Nemri is not alone. Many young people joined him for his hours at the police station, which has today been converted into a place where you can listen to music, play cards and talk about revolution.
We said goodbye to Thala. Marouan's father points out to us the place where they killed his son: "I will never forget this place". And so says the graffiti that he did there.
Neither will the Tunisian people forget.