Tales from the troubled Tunisian regime

To ensure no one forgets her sons’ suffering Khira Baraket went live, on national television, to tell her story.

Willemijn de Koning

A son dead, and another dying, due to a three decade long and torturous rule of Tunisian leader Zin al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali escaped to Tunisia in 2011, but how can a mother escape the horrors her children had to undergo. To ensure no one forgets her sons’ suffering Khira Baraket went live, on national television, to tell her story.

Sitting before hundreds of people, Ms. Baraket is among the first ones to share her ordeal. Fighting back tears, she takes a deep breath and says “I am going to talk about my son Faisal”. She narrates the events during the year 1991, when Ben Ali was President. “Police broke into our house in the middle of night, through the front door and the rooftop. They came to my bed and held guns at my sons’ heads. That day still traumatizes my children.” Ms. Baraket had six sons. That night one of her son, Faisal, wasn’t home. Probably this was no coincidence, because the police had especially come for him. Faisal may have known about the raid as he was part of the students group protesting the regime. When police couldn’t find him, they took her other son Jamal, who was 24 at that time. Ms. Baraket was informed, she would get Jamal only in exchange for Faisal. At the police station, Jamal faced many cruelties. He saw people dragged out of the torture room, abused to the extent they were unable to walk. Sometimes the tortured victims couldn’t be recognized as they were naked and covered all over in blood. Jamal also underwent insults and torture, while he was held at the station and eventually abused. He even witnessed, his brother, Faisal’s torture who was eventually caught by the police and brought to the same station.

For the first-time Tunisia heard Ben Ali’s victims narrate agonizing stories of massive human rights violations. People knew about Ben Ali’s crimes, but they had no idea about the extent of extreme, inhuman torture that men and especially the women underwent under his regime. Since its independence from France in 1955, Tunisia has witnessed troubled leadership till the ouster of Ben Ali.

In 2014, an independent tribunal, the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), came into being and asked the victims of previous violent regimes to share their experiences. The commission’s intent is to investigate all the human rights violations committed by the Tunisian government since its inception, in 1955, and to compensate and rehabilitate the victims. More than 65,000 people narrated their experiences and TDC chose some of them to narrate their traumatic struggle on a public platform, to be broadcasted live. The stories were broadcasted in six parts from November to January. Ms. Baraket was one such person.

As tears continued to roll down her cheeks, she added, “One day they came into my home again and told Faisal was dead. They told me I had only three hours to see my son’s body. Faisal’s father, cousin and neighbor went for him, but couldn’t even recognize him. His face was all swollen up and his body was covered up with bruises. He had been dead for five days. They just waited until the body was about to rot, before they informed us. Police kept watching us for days even after my son was buried. And we still didn’t know where Jamal was.”

Ms. Baraket goes on, “Jamal’s father went looking for him at the police station, but authorities said my son wasn’t there. Every day my husband would look for Jamal in every police station. We wanted to bring him food or clothes, but we couldn’t because we didn’t know where he was. Finally, after six months, they brought him to us”.

The Baraket family asked for an independent investigation into the death of Faisal, because they didn’t believe he was killed in a car accident, like police informed. The family found the government had paid doctors to misinform them. The Barakets then sought Amnesty International’s help, who hired more doctors to find out the actual reason for Faisal’s death. Torture. They found a wound, in his anus, which showed he had been penetrated with an object at least five centimeters long. Even today, Ms. Baraket thinks about it every day.

Together with her other son, Jamal, she shares her story with the whole world, in hope that everyone will realize the atrocities that occurred under Ben Ali’s regime and they won’t forget it and ensure such horrors won’t happen again. She knows, she won’t forget it. “I now live with asthma and panic attacks. Sometimes I just can’t breathe anymore. No one should experience what I have.”

Willemijn de Koning is a young correspondent in Morocco and the region around it. She reports  for radio and (online) newspapers, like Radio 1 in Belgium and Holland, Deutsche Welle and AD and Knack.  Reach Willemijn at [email protected]

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