Self-immolation in Tunisia remains a grim form of protest

KASSERINE, TUNISIA (AP) – In his old life, Hosni Kalaia remembers walking confidently through the streets of his hometown of Kasserine in central Tunisia. He flashed his heavy gold bracelets and rings and blew out his wide and carved chest from regular workouts.

Today, Kalaia hides her face from the world behind her dark sunglasses and under a woolen hat. On his left hand, three blackened, gnarled fingers protrude from a glove; on the right is not at all.

He lost them in the few seconds that had ruined his life forever when Kalaia was angry and embarrassed by the abuse and injustice he had suffered from the local police chief – he poured gasoline and set himself on fire.

It is among hundreds of Tunisians who have turned to desperate self-immolation over the past 10 years, following the example of Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit merchant from the town of Sidi Bouzid, who caught fire in December. On December 17, 2010, to protest against police harassment.

Bouazizi’s creepy death inadvertently sparked mass protests against poverty and oppression, leading to the fall of Tunisia’s 23-year-old dictator. And this triggered the Arab Spring uprisings as well as a decade of liquidation and civil wars in the region.

“I would never describe self-immolation as courage because even the bravest man in the world couldn’t do it,” Kalaia, 49, told the Associated Press at her family home. “When I poured gasoline on my head, I didn’t think much because I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing. Then I saw a flash, I felt my skin start to burn, and I fell. Eight months later, I woke up in the hospital.

He didn’t think it was easier to see the shock on people’s faces when he took off his hat and sunglasses. The strands of distorted scars on his face and ears break and shards, with vivid, deep cavities in his arms and stomach.

His younger brother also set him on fire, killed himself, and his mother tried to do the same, their family graphically reminding him of the chaos and economic turmoil of the North African nation.

Everywhere in the Arab world, the dreams of protesters have been shattered. Tunisia is often seen as a success story and a Tunisian democracy group won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, but although it has more civil liberties, freedom of expression and political pluralism, the country is plagued by a worsening economic crisis.

The lack of socio-economic reforms, the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar and weak, inefficient governance could not alleviate poverty and could not fully revive investment. Amid the COVID-19 epidemic, unemployment rose to 18%. Attempts to migrate to Europe by sea have skyrocketed.

“There is a huge gap between people’s aspirations and means. This gap pushes people further into misery, ”said Abdessater Sahbani, a sociologist at the University of Tunis. “You may have a good job and be well-educated, but that doesn’t mean anything to you.”

The number of self-burns has tripled since 2011 and “the rise has been sustained until 2020,” said Dr. Mehdi Ben Khelil of Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunisia, who is studying the phenomenon.

After the revolution, Ben Khelil said, “There is a contrast between what we hoped for and what we gained. Disappointment continued to grow.

Although there are no official statistics, the Tunisian Social Observatory of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights recorded 62 such suicides or attempts in the first ten months of 2020.

Most occur near local administration or government buildings to protest financial insecurity and suffering, said Najla Arfa, the observatory’s project manager. Police abuses are often the root cause.

The vast majority are working-class men in their 20s and 30s who live in disadvantaged areas such as Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid. Of the 13 survivors approached by the AP, they all said they needed financial help.

In the decade since Bouazizi’s suicide, little has changed in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid. Unemployed young men sit in chaotic plastic chairs in cafes. Others line up to buy cooking gas tanks after the strike cut off supplies and forced people to use firewood.

With his monuments in his memory, he became the sanctuary of the city of Bouazizi, whose life resembles that of millions of other Tunisian people. But not everyone values ​​his legacy positively.

“His actions had a negative impact on the entire country and Sidi Bouzid in particular,” says Marwa Hamdouni, a 30-year-old accounting assistant. “I think only his family benefited. But for the Sidi Bouzid governorate, the revolution did no good. “

In 2013, Bouazizi’s family moved to Montreal. Experts say his tales of his family benefiting financially from his death have resulted in other such suicides, especially after the revolution.

Ben Khelil, the doctor, says the reasons go beyond this: “Behind the digestion is the desire to express their words and their suffering. For some people, the desire is not to die but to be heard. “

Survivors face enormous psychological, physical and financial challenges.

“Some scars can heal poorly and interfere with certain functions such as sitting, chewing and expressing facial emotions,” says Ben Khelil. “There can be a lot of lasting pain, especially if the scars are deep and affect the nerves.”

Kalaia spent three years in a hospital and then recovered from her burn injuries in a private clinic. You can’t keep a bottle of water, get dressed without help, or fall asleep without medication. His arms are still full of infections.

“I’m not saying I’m sorry I woke up, but dying would have been better,” Kalaia says, pulling a cigarette. “Nowadays, I’m not thinking about killing myself another time, I’m asking God to die because I’m so tired.”

The Qur’an prohibits suicide and is considered taboo by many Muslim societies. This does not prevent hundreds of Tunisian attempts each year.

In 2014, Kalaia’s mother, now 68-year-old Zina Sehi, tried to burn herself to death in front of the president’s Tunis palace, protesting the government’s lack of support for the family. The following year, his 35-year-old brother, Saber, who died immediately, did the same. Kalaia blames herself for their actions.

The government set up a committee in 2015 to prevent such suicides, but the political turmoil led to short-term governments that took few deep steps to help survivors or their families.

– Do you see what this condition has done for me? The state has left me in this corner, ”Kalaia says, waving a mattress on the floor of her home where she sleeps. – It’s over, my life is over.