‘Charlie Hebdo’ style attack unites Tunisia in grief

Sorrow, anger and defiance in response to the jihadist attack on Bardo museum

A Tunisian woman holds a placard reading:  “No to terrorism. We will no longer remain silent for the death of our children” outside the National Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty

A Tunisian woman holds a placard reading: “No to terrorism. We will no longer remain silent for the death of our children” outside the National Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty

 

Serene Jaouani had never seen anything so terrible, not even during the 2011 revolution that overthrew President Ben Ali.

The emergency room doctorwas on duty when jihadist gunmen opened fire on tourists at Tunis’s Bardo museum on Wednesday. Security forces warned the Charles Nicole hospital to expect an influx of casualties. The dead and wounded arrived “in bursts” from 1pm until 3pm, says 28-year-old Dr Jaouani.

She stabilised eight patients with bullet wounds before sending them to surgery. “The worst were the abdominal perforations,” she says. “Because everything comes out.”

Tunisia has reacted to Wednesday’s attack, which killed 20 foreign tourists, a Tunisian policeman and the two gunmen, with a mixture of sadness, anger and defiance, similar to the French response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

Resist and win

Dr Fteiti Wadhah (26), an orthopaedic surgeon, says the thing that impressed him most was the calm of the wounded tourists. He operated on a Polish husband and wife and an Italian woman, all cruise ship passengers in their 70s. Charlie Hebdo was attacked on a Wednesday, when it held its weekly editorial conference. The tourists were attacked on Wednesday, the day when they are known to come ashore from Mediterranean cruises.

Wadhah’s patients all suffered open fractures. “Open fractures are very painful because bullets have gone through the bones,” he explains. The Polish husband and wife lay in beds side-by-side on the orthopaedic ward. “Each is terribly worried about the other,” the surgeon says. “They’re on morphine to help them get through this. The Polish man talks a lot to his wife, who complains of the pain from her shattered elbow. All the soft tissue was torn away.”

It was unfortunate that the first major attack in a Tunisian city targeted tourists, Wadhah says. “I worry what people will think of Tunisia. We are warm and friendly people. The people who did this don’t represent our country.”

Wadhah says he had been expecting something like this for several years, “Because we have a long border with Libya. It’s spillover. This is the situation of the entire Arab world now.” He believes former president Ben Ali’s repression of Islamists was the root cause of the fanaticism of Tunisian jihadis. “When you oppress people, they want vengeance.”

A tall, Polish diplomat stands in the sun outside the ward, waiting for the team of Polish doctors, psychologists and consuls to complete their assessment of Polish dead and wounded.

The team had arrived overnight in a military aircraft ambulance from Warsaw, and was expected to make the four-hour return journey last night.

The diplomat would not divulge figures, but the Tunisian health minister, Said al-Aidi, said there was at least one Pole killed and 11 wounded. Twelve of the 20 foreign victims had been identified by yesterday afternoon.

Tunisian officials escorted grim-faced European envoys to the hospital morgue.

Poland

Like the French following the January attacks in Paris, Tunisians are determined to remain united. “The taxi syndicate demonstrated in front of parliament this morning, to show that we are hand in hand, that all Tunisians are united,” says Warteni Minoubi (54).

“The Europeans are our brothers. I apologise to all of Europe for this massacre, to all the families of people who died. I feel ashamed for all Tunisia.”

Twenty-four hours after the atrocity, no one had hosed the red-brown blood stains from the pavement outside the Bardo museum. The recently restored collection of artefacts of every civilisation that has inhabited Tunisia constitutes the second most important museum in Africa, after Cairo. At least eight tourists were gunned down as they climbed off buses in the parking lot. The rest died when the gunmen pursued them as they fled inside.

Protest

“Tunis is free, free” and “Dégage les terroristes,” were two of the most popular chants. “Dégage” – get lost – was the slogan against Ben Ali when he became the first Arab dictator to fall in January 2011.

Another chant, “Larayedh on trial,” showed how Wednesday’s attack opened fractures between Islamist and secular Tunisians. Ali Larayedh was the interior minister, then prime minister, of the Islamist government that ruled Tunisia from 2011 until 2014, and which relinquished power peacefully when it lost last year’s elections.

Demonstrators accused Larayedh of having freed the emir or leader of Ansar al-Sharia, the now outlawed extremist group which has relocated across the border in Libya. “There is no difference between Islamists and jihadists,” says Mohamed Sassi (29), a lawyer.

Taoufik Abdelhedi (62), a theatre professor, and his French-born wife Anne-Marie, (68), a retired accountant, say they came to the demonstration “to say no to terrorism,” to show support for the police, and sympathy for the dead and wounded.

Today marks the 59th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France.

“We will have mixed feelings,” Abdelhedi says. “We believe in the future of Tunisia, but we are sad for what happened.”

“This is the same terrorism as Charlie Hebdo, ” Mrs Abdelhedi said. “Just as everyone said ‘Je suis Charlie,’ now they must say, ‘Je suis Bardo’.”