Friday, January 13, 2012

Proudly Tunisian And Part Of The Revolution

By Ameni Mathlouthi
Junior Reporter
I wasn’t supposed to be in the crowd of protesters on the streets of Tunis last year, but my desire to be part of my country’s historic revolution pulled me there anyway.
Tunisians who rose up against former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, scared him into leaving the country on January 14, 2011, and it wasn’t long afterward that I began to join their protests.
Concerned for my safety, my mother and my uncle told me not to go to the demonstrations, but I couldn’t resist. Just a little detour from my usual walk to the bus after school took me right to the center of the action on a busy street near the capital’s central train station.
I started going to the protests in February as a student in Tunis. At the demonstrations, I saw police officers, their faces covered with black cloth, pounding protesters with nail-studded clubs, and arresting anyone they could reach. Tear gas hung in the air. It makes it hard to open your eyes or breathe. It burns and water only makes it worse.
You feel like you are about to die, but it doesn’t kill.
The police didn’t appear to care about who was suffering. The crowds were made up of people of all ages and included workers heading home, travelers, students and the unemployed. Not everyone was there to protest. Some were just passing through.
Most of the protesters seemed to be there to honor a friend who had been killed, sometimes writing the names of the martyrs on the walls of buildings.
I had heard from friends that the news coverage of the protests wasn’t an accurate portrayal of reality, and I wanted to see for myself what was happening. 
I learned that being out in the streets, being part of the event, is not as scary as staying home.  I felt safer in the crowd than I did in my house.
Outside, I could see what was going on and I could run in any direction. Because I am a girl and was wearing a student backpack, I felt the police would not bother me, and they didn’t.
Shannon Zimmerman /

Crowds run from the clouds of tear gas 
during an aggressive move by police
At home, I heard shooting and people running outside. Live television coverage of intruders made me afraid someone would break in and hurt us.
And being in the middle of the demonstrations made me part of them. I felt it and lived it.
In March, I witnessed something even worse.
I was going home from the American cultural center where I was studying English, but couldn’t take the metro, the Tunis subway train. It was closed because of the protests.
I had to walk to the station, then take the bus from there. It was cold, windy day. I could see the crowd around the station and everybody coming out.

Shannon Zimmerman /

The Tunisian Army didn't get involved
I was pretty much the only one going toward the station. I was bundled in my winter clothes and could barely hear people saying to me, “Are you crazy? Don’t go there.”
I just kept on going, because until I met a helpful soldier from the Tunisian Army, I didn’t know what was going on inside the train station.
Shannon Zimmerman /
Outside of the main Metro connection
He started his duties at 10 p.m. but he was on the street early, around 7 p.m., because of the transportation problem. At first, I didn’t stop walking to listen to him. I was walking faster and faster, and he wasn’t in uniform, but when he showed me his ID, I stopped.
The soldier told me that protests were going on at the station and tried to convince me not to go there. I knew he was trying to be kind, but I wanted to see it for myself, and I thought the trains might start again.
So he walked me to the station and there I saw people getting attacked by the police with tear gas. I saw officers throw small cans into the underground station and into the trains themselves – closed areas – to force the people out of there.
It was dark and loud, but overhead, I saw a bright light and I could hear shooting. It was from police up above in helicopters. I got into the train where I couldn’t see anything or breathe because of the gas, so I had to run out of there, the army guy still following me.
We ran into a gathering of protesters a few minutes away. On the way, I saw young boys, perhaps about 11 years old, throwing rocks towards the police, who were far away. It was cold, and they were wearing just tee shirts. But I don’t think they noticed because they were red with sweat.
I stopped and asked them why they were throwing rocks. They said that Tunisia was their country, and that they had the right to be out there, that they wanted to live their history and get rid of the old government.
With no way to get home, I used the soldier’s phone to call my uncle and asked him to pick me up. After about an hour, he called back to say he couldn’t get closer because of the police roadblocks in the area. So he had to park a bit far and walk to get me from there.
Photo provided

Aymen Abderrahmen in a crowd of 
protesters early in the Tunisian revolution
That night, three people died from getting shot, the government said, but I don’t remember how many were injured.
I joined the protests again in May. That time, I went with my American drama teacher, Shannon Zimmerman, and a group of Tunisian friends, Aymen Abderrahmen, Mourad Brahmi, and Ynez Hedy.

Shannon Zimmerman /
Protests started in mid-morning in front of the National Theater
Together, we were taking part in a play about the revolution. After rehearsal, we went downtown to the protest that was already going on near the national train station, which links Tunis to cities outside the capital region.

Shannon Zimmerman /

Tear gas at the train station
Because of the vast amount of teargas outside, we went inside the station and looked for places to hide. We even tried the bathroom, but there were so many people, it was impossible.
When the police finally entered the station, about 40 of us fled into a waiting room overlooking the platforms to watch what happened. We saw all young men were rounded up with kicks and clubs and taken away by police.
Shannon Zimmerman /

Police enter the train station
One policeman noticed us and he ordered us to sit down as the police moved through and dragged out anyone who looked the least bit suspicious.
The police beat anyone who protested his innocence.
Shannon Zimmerman /

Police at the train station
One of those taken away could not have been more than 12 years old. He was with his mother.
Another brave woman took a risk and claimed a young man was her own son – he wasn’t – to spare him from what she feared the police would do. Luckily, after brief questioning, they let him go with her.
Overall we were trapped in the train station for almost three hours. I’ll never forget the cries of the children in the station or the fear and insecurity that people felt.

Why did all this happen?
After 23 years of corruption, 23 years of stolen rights and 23 years of restriction, people had had enough from the government.
They had been waiting for change for long time. Somebody had to take the initiative, to take the first step to bring a better future.
Someone needed to bring light to Tunisia and spring to the Arab world.
The Arab Spring, the Jasmine Revolution – it all started with 26-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi.
Bouazizi was from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, a city located in the central part of the country. On December 17, 2010, he set himself on fire after a policewoman slapped him and ordered him to pack up his street cart. He didn’t have a license, but it was the only way for him to support his family.
He was not complaining about having to resort to selling fruit to support his family. But he could not handle this insult to his dignity. He died January 4, 2011 in the hospital, 18 days after his self-immolation.
U.S. State Department
With Bouazizi still in the hospital, demonstrations began breaking out in response. On December 24, 2010, people took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid, and in the following days, protests spread to the Menzel Bouzaiene part of Gafsa, the Ben Gardane part of Medinine, Al-Qayrawan, Sfax and Sousse, all the way from the center of the country to Tunis in the north.
Although the police were firing on protesters, and the president warned that he would punish those who use violence, the people did not back off. More than 1,000 people took to the streets and many protesters were organized on Facebook and Twitter.
By January 14, 2011, about 76 people had died in the protests, though the government’s estimate was only 23. That day, the government declared a state of emergency and Ben Ali promised to dissolve the parliament and hold legislative elections within six months.
But by that evening, was on a plane to France. France turned him away, so he went to Saudi Arabia, where he remains.
Presidential responsibilities were passed to the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa.
The demonstrations that started out of respect for Bouazizi and for universal human dignity rapidly turned to general protests against the government.
People called for wholesale change. They demanded democracy, freedom of speech and religion, job opportunities and social equality.
So many websites, including YouTube, were blocked in Tunisia. Facebook and Hotmail were monitored.
Nobody dared to say anything about the president or his party or even talk about it on the phone, because all the lines were monitored and people got arrested for talking about him.
The government-controlled news media was working in favor of the government’s interests regardless of the facts. In some cases, the media hid the facts, downplaying Bouazizi’s death, and trying to make people believe that there were fewer needy people than there really were, and promoting the view that the government was doing its best to make life better for people.
In school, social studies books show only pictures of the president visiting hospitals, giving donations or shaking hands with the poor. There are pictures of the new train station or a new machine at the hospital to show students how much he was doing to improve the country.
We students were never were allowed to discuss our politics in class because teachers were afraid of being fired.
Even though Tunisia’s official religion is Islam and that is stated in the country’s constitution, the government closed the mosques, opening them only for about 15 to 20 minutes, five times a day when they are supposed to be open all the time.
In addition, names of people who prayed the required five prayers in the mosque were listed and reported to the government and they were sent to jail.
Even as a middle school student in 2009, I witnessed religious persecution at my school, Ibn Sina.
I was sitting in math class taking a test when the headmaster of the school came in and dragged one of the students out of class by her head scarf, just because she was practicing Islam by wearing the hijab.
Every girl in school who covered her hair had to remove it and sign a paper saying that she would not wear a scarf the following day. That didn’t happen just at my school, but at many.
Administrators always stood by the front door of the school, especially on exam week, picking the girls who covered their hair. They then forced them to take the scarf off themselves or have it removed with no respect and in front of everybody in school.
The Islamic outfit was considered inappropriate dress during Ben Ali’s day. Women were not able to be in public wearing religious clothing or they would be pulled into police stations and forced to take the hair cover off.
Sometimes policemen would uncover a woman’s head on the street, and take their national ID card from them.
Religious people who had enough money to leave, did.
Men who stayed in the country and continued to practice their religion openly spent more time in jail, enduring torture, than out of it. Plus, they had to shave their beard.
Tunisia is a Muslim country, but the government was intent on building a secular nation. It always encouraged people to move away from religion.
YJI photo
Youth Journalism International's
Ameni Mathlouthi in Tunisia
But people in Tunisia believed that it could be a better country, and because of that, they protested.
And when police were killing demonstrators, even more turned out. 
They did not think about getting shot or hurt.
They thought about making life better for the country and easier for them.
Demonstrations continued until July, when preparations began for the national elections held October 23, with official results announced November 14.
Now Tunisia’s newly elected leaders are working on the county’s new constitution, and my country’s future looks brighter.
After the revolution, one thing that really changed was that everyone started talking politics – something we hadn’t been able to do freely before. Even little kids could tell you what happened because they were witnesses, and the shooting kept them awake at night.
Click here for a video of Ameni Mathlouthi talking about her experiences during Tunisia's revolution.


Muhammad M Afzal said...

hey ameni the way you write it
i just feel that i was there.

pam z said...

It's so interesting to hear what you experienced Ameni--thanks for sharing.

ameni mathlouthi said...


merna ihab said...

i really like ur article and i like sharing ur experience too

salman said...

i read your article and really liked was educative,revealing an straight to the point.i think a country like Tunisia would be a happy place to be when there is freedom of the press.a system of government that would tolerate individuals opinion and a collective strong voice.

Jemai Firas said...

Bravooooooooooooooo amani

I'm so so Proud of youuu <3 _ <3

peace03 said...

Very informative article. Thanks for writing it.