Self-immolation persists as sinister form of protest in Tunisia

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KASSERINE, Tunisia (AP) – In his old life, Hosni Kalaia remembers walking the streets of his hometown of Kasserine in central Tunisia with confidence. He flashed his heavy gold bracelets and rings, and inflated his chest, large and sculpted from regular workouts.

Today, Kalaia hides her face from the world behind dark sunglasses and a woolen cap. On his left hand, three blackened and gnarled fingers protrude from a glove; to his right, he has none at all.

He lost them in the few seconds it took to disfigure his life forever, when – angry and distraught at the abuse and injustice he had suffered at the hands of a local police chief – Kalaia sprayed himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

He is one of hundreds of Tunisians who have turned to the desperate act of self-immolation over the past 10 years, like Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit seller from the town of Sidi Bouzid who self-immolated on December 12. 17, 2010, to protest police harassment.

Bouazizi’s gruesome death unwittingly sparked mass protests against poverty and repression, leading to the downfall of the 23-year-old Tunisian dictator. This in turn sparked the uprisings of the Arab Spring and a decade of repression and civil wars across the region.

“I would never describe the act of self-immolation as an act of courage because even the bravest person in the world couldn’t do it,” Kalaia, 49, told The Associated Press in her home. family. “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, felt my skin start to burn, and fell. I woke up eight months later in the hospital.

He says it hasn’t been easier to see the shock on people’s faces when he takes off his hat and sunglasses. Streams of scars unravel and break across her face and deformed ears, and there are livid, deep marks on her arms and stomach.

Her younger brother also burst into flames, committing suicide, and her mother tried to do the same, their family as a graphic reminder of the chaos and economic crisis in this North African nation.

Almost everywhere in the Arab world, the dreams of protesters have been shattered. Tunisia is often considered a success story and a Tunisian democratic group won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, but while it has more civil liberties, freedom of expression and political plurality, the country is in the throes of a increasingly serious economic crisis.

The absence of socio-economic reforms, the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar and weak and ineffective governance have not succeeded in alleviating poverty or fully reviving investment. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment has risen to 18%. There have been more and more attempts to migrate to Europe by sea.

“There is a huge gap between people’s aspirations and their means. It is this gap that pushes people even more into poverty, ”said Abdessater Sahbani, a sociologist at the University of Tunis. “You can have a good job and be well educated, but that doesn’t give you anything substantial.”

The number of self-immolations has tripled since 2011, and “the increase persisted until 2020,” said Dr Mehdi Ben Khelil of Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis, who is studying the phenomenon.

After the revolution, said Ben Khelil, “there was a contrast between what we hoped for and what we won. The disillusion has continued to grow.

Although there are no official statistics, the Tunisian Social Observatory of the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights recorded 62 suicides or such attempts during the first 10 months of 2020.

Most are happening near local administration or government buildings to protest financial insecurity and suffering, said Najla Arfa, project manager at the observatory. Police abuse is often a trigger.

The overwhelming majority are working class men in their twenties and thirties, living in deprived interior areas such as Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid. Out of 13 survivors contacted by AP, all said they needed financial assistance.

In the decade since Bouazizi’s suicide, little has changed in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid. Groups of unemployed young men sit chain-smoking on plastic chairs in cafes. Others are lining up to buy cans of cooking gas after a strike disrupted supplies and forced people to use firewood.

With monuments in his memory, the city has become the sanctuary of Bouazizi, whose life resembles that of millions of other Tunisians. But not everyone views their heritage in a positive light.

“His act had a negative effect on the whole country and in particular on Sidi Bouzid”, explains Marwa Hamdouni, 30-year-old accounting assistant. “I think only his family benefited from it. But for the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, the revolution has brought nothing good.

In 2013, Bouazizi’s family moved to Montreal. Experts say stories of his family earning money from his death spawned more such suicides, especially just after the revolution.

Ben Khelil, the doctor, says the reasons go beyond: “Behind the immolation, there 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 immense psychological, physical and financial challenges.

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

Kalaia spent three years in a hospital and then a private clinic recovering from her burns. He cannot hold a water bottle, dress unassisted, or fall asleep without medication. His arms are still riddled with infections.

“I’m not going to tell you that I regret waking up, but to die would have been better,” Kalaia said, lighting a cigarette. “Nowadays I don’t think about killing myself again, but I ask God for death because I am so tired.

The Quran prohibits suicide and many Muslim societies consider it a taboo. This does not prevent hundreds of Tunisians from trying it out every year.

In 2014, Kalaia’s mother, Zina Sehi, now 68, attempted to burn herself to death outside the presidential palace in Tunis, protesting the government’s lack of support for the family. The following year, his brother Saber, 35, followed suit, dying instantly. Kalaia blames herself for their actions.

The government established a committee to prevent such suicides in 2015, but political turmoil has led to a series of short-term governments that have taken little deep-rooted action to help survivors or their families.

“Do you see what this state has done for me?” It’s the state that left me in this corner, ”Kalaia says, pointing to a mattress on the floor of his house where he sleeps. “It’s over, my life is over.”

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