Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Standing destitute in the street with her one-year-old baby strapped to her back, Louise Fallone describes the moment when masked attackers broke into her home in the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax and chased her out.

“At 2am, Tunisian teenagers attacked… They threw stones at us and held a knife to my throat.

“I took my baby and fled without clothes. My Tunisian neighbour threw a blanket over me as I ran.

“They took my money and broke everything we had.”

Ms Fallone arrived from Ivory Coast about a year ago in search of better economic opportunities, and works in a coffee shop.

She was attacked in a wave of xenophobic violence, which happened about a week ago after the fatal stabbing of a 41-year-old local man during an altercation with several migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

As the BBC team drove into the city, with the temperature gauge in the car reading 40C (104F), the first thing we saw were dozens of migrants standing alongside the dusty road holding signs saying “peace”.

Horns sounded in support as locals drove past the encampment. And we saw locals giving out bread and water.

But there was no doubt that hostility to these migrants remained.

Videos of the attack have been widely shared. One shows a masked perpetrator screaming that “black Africans are a threat to us and our women” and then inciting people to assault the migrants.

In another, a man shouts: “We must kick all these migrants out. We don’t want them living here.”

Migrants in Sfax
Image caption,Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has been accused of fuelling attacks on migrants

In order to understand why this city had erupted into such violence, we spent the night with the hundreds of migrants, sleeping on the concrete.

Dozens were carrying visible injuries which they told us were from the attacks of 4 July. One woman, suffering heat stroke, lay nearly unconscious.

A total of 25 people, including children, needed treatment in hospital on the night of the attack. One migrant says his seven-year-old brother, who had both his legs broken, was among them.

Footage from that night shows a presence of police, but a seeming lack of intervention by them.

Despite numerous requests for comment, the police would not speak to us.

However, the very next morning, the authorities did respond, by forcibly removing more than 100 migrants from the city and driving them to the Tunisian-Libyan border.

A further 1,000 have since been removed from the city and taken to both the Libyan and Algerian borders, local Tunisian officials have been quoted as saying.

Videos filmed by the migrants at the Tunisian-Libyan border and sent to campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) show several people with open wounds and deep lacerations.

They claim to have been beaten by the authorities.

HRW said that migrants, asylum seekers and students were expelled in what amounted to “collective punishment”. Some of them were living legally in Tunisia, while others were not, it added.

The border authorities declined to comment regarding the allegations.

However, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Saturday rejected all claims of mistreatment against migrants and said they were receiving aid within what he called “our values”.

Relative peace has now returned to the streets of Sfax. But in the city’s numerous coffee shops, the attacks are still all anyone can talk about.

Local shopkeeper and activist Miriam Bribri says she is outraged but not surprised by the violence which took place last week.

Miriam Bribri
Image caption,Miriam Bribri is among locals who stood up for the migrants

“There was a wave of racist videos on social media. I was seeing such disgusting posts. So I was already worried such an upsurge of anger could only result in violence.”

She blames President Said too. Earlier this year he made highly inflammatory comments, alleging that “hordes of sub-Saharan African migrants” were bringing “violence and crime” into the country.

“What was shocking was finding myself in the minority, defending basic principles against violence and racism,” says Ms Bribri

One specific Facebook account, criticised for promoting the violence in Sfax last week, was Sayeb-Etrottoir, meaning “Clear the Pavements”.

Just days before the attacks, the page posted materials advocating that Sfax must be “saved” from the migrants.

The group’s administrator and prominent influencer, Zied Mallouli, vehemently rejects claims that the posts fuelled violence.

In an interview with the BBC, he said he could only speculate about why people took to the streets that night.

“For them it was a matter of liberation. They think migrants have taken their homes and will settle here.”

However, he was clear on what he thinks should happen next.

“The immediate solution is for the authorities to gather all the people in downtown Sfax and deport them and put them in a camp,” Mr Mallouli said.

In the centre of Sfax, close to a small rubbish dump, about 300 migrants have set up camp since being driven from their homes.

With only cardboard to lie on, and a few trees under which to seek shade from the scorching sun, the stench of rotting food from the dump surrounds them.

“I’ve spent four days here with my family because we don’t have any other place to stay. I’m just so tired. I feel like giving up,” says Miriam, a mother-of-two from Sierra Leone.

She adds that she is almost at the point of seeking a loan to return, although this is nearly impossible.

Tunisian by vehicle
Image caption,Some residents of Sfax have gone out of their way to help victims of the violence

Enduring sweltering temperatures, and with very little shade on the streets, they are entirely dependent on hand-outs from local residents.

“I saw that these people were hungry and sleeping in the open,” says one local resident. “So with my friends, we decided to make sandwiches. Yesterday we also brought water and yogurt. All for free, in God’s grace.”

Another, a taxi driver, says he and his wife have begun to host one mother and daughter after last week’s attacks.

“I feel sorry for the migrants and my city. So I decided to host a family. I provide them with shelter and the food my wife cooks,” he adds. “The Tunisian authorities should offer them all legal status.”

In the current climate, the chances of that happening seem close to impossible.

Stuck in limbo, neither the authorities, nor the migrants seem to be any closer to a solution – or a final destination.

By Joy

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