Friday 26th June, Tunisia
Issam El Bessi has a video on his phone that he can’t stop watching. It shows a British couple, lying face down in the sand, covered in blood. Both are middle-aged and heavyset, both in their holiday swimwear, both bleeding, but at this point only one of them is dead. “Look, she’s still moving,” Issam points at his phone, his voice momentarily sounding hopeful for a woman whose fate he already knows.
A shop owner in the beach resort of Port El Kantaoui, ten kilometres north of Sousse, El Bessi had gone to the beach that day for a short morning siesta. Lying next to tourists, half-asleep in the liquid-hot sun, he was jolted awake by the sound of an AK-47 firing wildly in his direction. The man holding the gun was 23-year-old university dropout Seifeddine Rezgui. Issam dove to the ground for cover. “I really thought I was going to die,” he says. “The people in this video were sitting right next to me.”
Seifeddine Rezgui killed 38 tourists that Friday morning, the majority British nationals. According to authorities, the Gaâfour-born jihadist was trained by Isis at a camp in Libya, although his parents insist that he had never left the country. CCTV footage shows him being dropped off to the street behind the beach in a white van before beginning his killing spree. The first round of shootings took place on the beach outside the Imperial Marhaba hotel, just before noon. Mobile phone footage shows Rezgui casually strolling on the sand wearing a black T-shirt and shorts, AK-47 in hand. Then he entered the hotel through the gate on the beach and killed another 10 people in the swimming pool. A local newspaper, al-Sabbah, later reported that police took 47 minutes to arrive at the scene, prompting local and foreign media to ask why the response was so slow.
When El Bessi got back on his feet, Marhaba beach was littered with corpses. He took out his phone and started to film. “I don’t know why I thought it was important to get a video,” he says. “I just did.” The footage he captured is too grisly to broadcast on television; few people have seen it. Even as he talks to me about what he saw that day, he has one eye on the video, which he plays on a loop. His answers to my questions are punctuated with pauses as he takes in new details with each viewing. The video shows sun-reddened bodies lying limply in the sand, punctured by bullets, their wounds still fresh; screams of panic can be heard in the background. These images are stuck in his mind. “I think about it all the time. Sometimes I don’t think about it for two or three days but then it comes back. At night, I replay it over and over in my head. I want to forget it, but I can’t. It keeps coming back.”
Marhaba beach is empty, save for a few local families. The deckchairs have been laid out diligently everyday since the attack, but there is no one here to sit on them. A small bunch of withering flowers lies on the ground in front of the hotel. A policeman sits outside, flicking through the morning newspaper.
At night, I replay it over and over in my head. I want to forget it, but I can’t. It keeps coming back” – Issam El Bessi
Houssen Mougou, a watersports instructor, had left the beach to wash his face when he heard gunfire. He ran towards the beach to see what was happening. “I didn’t believe what I was seeing,” he recalls. “I saw my friend running and he told me, ‘Go, run, run’; the tourists were behind him. We ran together until we reached the main road.”
It was the first time Mougou had ever heard gunfire. “I still can’t believe he came here and killed those people,” he says. “And to see the tourists, how they ran, how they screamed. It was terrible. All that day I was afraid.” The next day, Mougou didn’t go to work. When he returned the following day, his beach had become a crime scene. The police were combing through every inch of sand for evidence. Journalists swarmed the town, asking locals and staff what they had seen.
“There were so many cameras, so many antennas everywhere,” Boubakar Ajmi recalls. He is sitting in his souvenir shop, on the same stool he has sat on each day for more than 40 years, a few metres from the beach. The shop faces the exact spot where Rezgui fell when he was shot dead by police. Ajmi recalls the panic of that day. “I heard the noise. I saw tourists running really fast from the beach. I asked, ‘What is it? What happened?’ They were saying, ‘Terrorists! Terrorists!’”
News reports of the attack praise the local heroes who jumped to defend tourists under siege, but they left out Ajmi’s story. As Rezgui continued the bloodbath on the beach, Ajmi ushered fleeing tourists into his humble souvenir shop. “‘Please come in, please come inside,’ I said. Here in my shop, I kept around 35 people. I guarded the door. Then there was more noise. It was like the ground was shaking. I called the police. I feel proud that I helped that day.”
Ten days after the attack, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office landed a devastating blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry: it advised British citizens against all but essential travel to the country. The Belgian and Dutch governments put similar restrictions in place, though the French, Italian and German governments did not change their travel advice. An exodus ensued. Airline operators and tour companies packed flight after flight with tourists returning from interrupted summer holidays.
Issam El Bessi packed up his shop two weeks ago. “There is no work now,” he says. Boubakar Ajmi, whose family of five rely on the few dinars he earns every day agrees: “There’s been no work since it happened,” he says. “I haven’t sold a thing – maybe occasionally I sell a Coke or a bottle of water to locals but not more than that.”
“Here in my shop, I kept around 35 people. I guarded the door… I called the police. I feel proud that I helped that day” – Boubakar Ajmi
Tourism accounts for 14.5 percent of Tunisia’s economy. The sudden drop in tourist numbers threatens to be so costly to the nation that the president sent a delegation to the UK to try to convince the British government to lift travel restrictions.
Sitting idly on Marhaba beach surrounded by jetskis and banana boats, Mohammed bin Saad reacts with frustration when I ask if he will talk to me. “You can see for yourself. There’s nothing to talk about now.”
Bin Saad, who runs a watersports company called Kantaoui 3 just outside the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, witnessed the massacre. After the attack, he spoke to at least six news outlets. “Same questions. Same answers. I have nothing to say now.” Watching the waves, he sits in a white plastic chair passing the hours until the day is over. “I’ve done this job for 20 years,” he says. “But what can I do? At the end of the month, I’m closing my business.” Business has nosedived for Kantaoui 3, as it has for everyone in Port El Kantaoui. “We used to be 12 in our company. Now there’s six. And there are no tourists. Only some Algerians.”
“I saw tourists running from the beach. I asked, ‘What happened? They were saying, ‘Terrorists! Terrorists!'” – Houssen Mougou
A quiet calamity is engulfing the area. On the beach, the man selling cheap jasmine garlands, the one selling peeled prickly pears and the one with two camels for tourist rides are all searching desperately for a customer. The nearby hotels have almost all had 100 percent cancellations. Next door to the Imperial Marhaba, the Bellevue Park hotel is planning to close its doors in the next few weeks. Hundreds of hotel staff have lost their jobs. Those who survived the cull go to work each morning but find themselves with nothing to do. The town is dull with inactivity.
At the Marhaba Palace down the road, Lofti Hadda, the receptionist, is complaining, phone in hand. “Why did this happen in Tunisia? There was an attack in France but nobody stopped going to France. It’s because we are a Muslim country.” The plodding lobby music of the hotel contrasts sharply with his urgent tone. “We should call them. We have regular clients. We should phone them, and tell them to come back here and help us.”
Hadda’s frustration is echoed by the boys of Kantaoui 3 on the beach. “Why did the tourists leave?” they ask me. “Why did they have to go home? How did you get here if they cancelled all the flights?” Their faces are eager for answers, for the rationale behind their abandonment. “Tell them it’s safe here. Look you can see, it’s safe.”
In the days after the massacre, the incumbent government of president Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency in Tunisia. The attack at Sousse had been preceded a few months earlier by a similar attack at the Bardo museum in Tunis, which left 21 tourists dead. 1,100 newly armed policemen were commissioned, and now they stand guard outside embassies, monuments, museums, shopping centres and major roads. A new anti-terror law was passed, providing for the death penalty for terrorists, and with a new definition of ‘terrorists’ broad enough to include political dissenters. Human rights activists have criticised the legislation as the beginning of a slide back towards dictatorship.
At the Imperial Marhaba hotel, I am approached by a plainclothes police officer stationed outside the hotel. Behind the hotel gate, two more armed guards sip Coca-Cola under the shade of a small tree. “C’est interdit,” they say; journalists are not allowed inside the hotel while the police enquiry is going on. Armed police patrols are monitoring activity in the neighbourhood. Dressed in black uniforms with AK-47s in hand, their presence seems out of place. They are polite and friendly and tell me they’ve been stationed here since the attack. They ask me what I’m writing about, and they all want to check my press card.
“I’ve done this job for 20 years. But what can I do? At the end of the month, I’m closing my business”– Mohammed bin Saad
On my way into Sousse, my taxi was searched at a police checkpoint. A senior police officer, who wants to remain anonymous, tells me that they are searching everyone. He says that young men with beards are looked at with extra suspicion. “Of course,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re looking for people, we’re doing an inquest. We try to see if people have links to Isis or other militant groups.”
The people of Port El Kantaoui use a curious word to describe the tragic events of 26th June. They call it ‘l’accident’. I ask a police officer, why this euphemism? Why not call it an attack? He pauses for a moment. “I suppose it’s because it was our duty to protect the tourists. It was our responsibility to make sure that the tourists were safe. And when that man came…” His thought trails off. The word ‘accident’ appears in everyone’s testimonies – local cab drivers, shop owners, townspeople. They know that they were never the intended targets of the attack on their town and there is a sense of collective guilt in their stories. The gunman came to kill their guests.
Now, a couple of months after the attack, the international press has shifted its attention away from Marhaba beach. The world may be moving on, but the people of Port El Kantaoui have not stopped thinking about the ‘accident’ of 26th June.
As I turn to leave the beach, a man runs towards me. “My name is Moez Arfa,” he says. “I want you to tell the man who I helped that I am praying for him.” I ask him who the man was. “I don’t know,” he replies.
“He was shot,” Arfa continues. “I carried him to the hospital. I don’t know what happened to him, but I think he is alive. I just want him to be OK. That’s all.”
On the ground | Read more about Vidhi’s experiences of reporting in Tunisia on the Slow Journalism blog at slow-journalism.com
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.