<i>Thank you Tunisia </i>
As the flow of migrant workers from Libya started to roll into Tunisia from the Ras Jdir border late February, there was hardly anyone there other than the Tunisian border guards and its army to receive them.
The dramatic uprising of the people in Libya to oust the Gaddafi regime, ruling for 42 years with iron hands, sent a wave of shock and fear among the estimated 200,000 migrant workers there. They fled towards the borders of Egypt, Tunisia and Niger. How most of these workers were subjected to torture, robbery and rape while travelling through Libya to reach the borders is a different story.
First wave of people to cross the Ras Jdir border were the Egyptians, then came the Chinese and in the third wave came the Bangladeshis in their thousands.
Tunisia, recovering from a stunning popular uprising in December, 2010, that ousted the 23-year-old corrupt regime of president Zin el Abedin Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, had never experienced anything like this in its history. When thousands walked into its soil to flee Gaddafi's atrocities, the hard working and hospitable Tunisians were busy picking up from the scratches of the “revolution” that claimed the lives of nearly 250 people.
The news of thousands of workers arriving on their soil spread throughout the Tunisian territory of 165 square kilometres and to its 12 million people.
The spirit of the just-ended revolution rose again among the people. This time for the welfare of others who are in need of food and shelter. Before the international aid workers reached the crisis area, about 60,000 displaced people were there in Ras Jdir under the open sky.
From every corner of Tunisia, men and women rose to the need of the moment. They raised money, food, clothes, tents, water and rushed there to help. Thousands of families in the two adjacent districts, Medenine and Tataouine, cooked food at home and drove their own transports over a 100 kilometres to the border to feed the Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Chinese, Somalis and others. In Zirzas, under Medenine district, 100 kilometres away from Ras Jdir border, people opened up schools, youth centres and doors of their own homes to the fleeing thousands.
Gilbert Greenall, leader of the United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination Team in Choucha camp, arrived on March 2. When he arrived, up to 15,000 people of different countries were crossing into Tunisia every day through Ras Jdir.
“In my 30 years of experience in different countries of the world, I have never seen a public response as generous as the Tunisians towards the displaced people,” said Greenhall. “It was definitely the spirit of their revolution that raised the entire people to start an amazing gesture of generosity.”
Aida Boulsene, an IT expert working at a hotel at the tourist town of Zarzis, narrated how the Tunisian people reacted to the events in Libya.
There are instances during the first days of the exodus from Libya when every shop in Tunisia asked its clients for donation for the displaced people. Then they arrived in Choucha in trucks and other vehicles with relief, Aida said.
“One of my maternal uncles works as a chef. He took leave from his job to open a kitchen in Choucha to feed the hungry people arriving there,” Aida said. “We knew we had to help, we did not hesitate despite our own struggles in day to day life.”
The Tunisian revolution that ended on January 14 with the departure of president Ben Ali, triggered uprising throughout the Arab world ruled by dictators decade after decade. Tunisians had to wait for 23 years for the ignition that set off the revolution.
The story of the revolution goes back to a small town called Sidi Bouzid where Bou'aziz, a university graduate, discovered that his degree was not enough to secure a decent employment. Bou'aziz turned to selling fruit and vegetables for a living but when security forces confiscated his vending cart, on December 7, 2010 he torched himself with gasoline in public in front of the local government building. Bou'azizi's death ignited a series of protests across Tunisia and brought down the government at an incredible speed.
At the Choucha camp yesterday, where currently 15,000 displaced people, including 6,200 Bangladeshis, are sheltered, the number of Tunisian volunteers working long shifts is simply overwhelming. Different Tunisian private organisations have joined the 80 aid organisations here with anything from portable toilets, rubbish bins, tents, and food and water. On the main road between Zarzis and Choucha, convoys of relief materials were seen yesterday heading for the camp.
Mona Alouane, a third-year student at the Tunis University of Fine Arts came to Choucha, 700 kilometres from home with seven of her friends to help the Bangladeshis, for what she thought, the most helpless people of the lot in Choucha camp.
“When I asked for a shift to work at the camp, the authorities told me I could work from 8:00pm to 2:00am which I accepted with pleasure,” said Mona. “This experience has taught me that there are more desperate people in this world than I.”
Firas Kayal, the UNHCR spokesperson at Choucha camp, said during the eight years that he has been working with UNHCR at different places, he has never seen such generosity from the locals.
“In the beginning of the crisis had the Tunisian people not come forward to help, there would have been a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Kayal.
A Tunisian telecommunication company called Etisalat along with a French company Telecoms Sans Frontieres opened up booths for the displaced people at the Choucha camp so that they can call toll-free to their countries.
“You have to thank the Tunisian government first that allowed in these thousands of people many of whom without any travel documents,” Kayal said, “The Tunisian army has been doing the magic job of maintaining law and order in the camp as well,” Kayal added.
There are others too in the unprecedented race to help in this part of the world. The Muslim Hands, a charity organisation from UK, has opened a kitchen for the hundreds of stranded workers who have to spend up to 24 hours at the Djerba International Airport before boarding flights for their countries. They are serving 10,000 meals a day at the airport, Aslan Nursat of the Muslim Hands said.
For the Tunisians, hope had been a rare commodity before Bou'aziz's revolution. Bou'aziz's sacrifice has brought back hope not only for Tunisians alone but also for many people, including the distressed Bangladeshis here. But just as the power of hope should not be underestimated, neither the danger of hope unfulfilled.