Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Women of the Revolution

It's ten in the morning. Cool Winter sunshine, lightly bathes hundreds of men and women gathered outside a conference centre on Mohammed V street, Tunis. Our delegation of journalists, politicians and activists make our way inside. I wish I was at the latest demonstration on the streets (a daily occurance now) and suspect we are in for a yawn worthy technical meeting.
 I am wrong.
I am underestimating the passion of this uprising, of the Tunisian people. The world's media circus has  pitched camp in Libya. But no meeting in Tunis today is under subscribed or can be described as dull.

In this hall, families of political prisoners, along with many men who suffered torture under the Ben Ali regime, are gathered to remember their martyrs.
Despite the highly charged atmosphere, as we make our way through the packed auditorium, the men forced to stand through lack of space, still spare a moment to greet us with 'Asalamu Alaykhum' as we make our way to the front row.
Behind me four rows of women in the hijab sit, faces streaked with tears, a fierce fire in their eyes; loss mixed with hope. These women are the widows of men from the Islamic party of Tunisia or 'Nada.' Nada has been banned for more than two decades in Tunisia. It's members, people here tell me, suffering the worst persecution under the Ben Ali 'terror.' In the start of this new era, with most of the old politicians still in situ, The Islamic Movement remains, like many opposition parties, banned. Just one of the issues the people here want reversed.
Later on, a lawyer, Abdul Monayhim, tells our group, that due to the persecution, torture and murder of Nada members, this party is now very popular in Tunis. The crackdown on the so-called 'Islamism' that Ben Ali feared, back firing massively and serving as an 'advertising campaign' which today sees the Islamic Movement one of the country's largest parties, with support from even some more secular parts of the population.

The cries of 'Allahu Akbar' reverberating around the hall give goose bumps. There is fervour and pain here today.
On the platform, are members of Human Rights organisations, no longer in hiding. Behind them are draped huge flags. The red flag of Tunisia, replete with the crescent moon and star. Beside this, the Egyptian flag and to the left hand side, a surprise. Not one but two Palestinian flags. Tunisians, it seems do not forget the suffering of those in the Holy Land.
Mohammed Hanoun, of the Human Rights organisation that called the rally, addresses the crowd to more cries of 'Allahu Akbar.'
'We are celebrating a day of victory' he begins '..the success of the first stage of this Blessed Revolution..You are free people of Tunisia. You paid with your blood!'
He calls for a 'Council to protect this revolution' for rumours, (and more than rumours) abound here that Secret Police prowl the unruly streets at night, snatching people on lists that old and newly updated, then detain them.
Who for?
Well the old regime has not gone yet. Ministers, the machinery of the state, remains in place. Nothing has yet been fully initiated to make sure Ben Ali's henchmen do not remain glued to their seats of power.
Unlike Egypt, where the weekly protests got larger and larger, leading to a temporary military state. Tunisians, have dispersed their crowds into hundreds of smaller demos nationwide, making daily, almost hourly protests on individual issues; prisoners, employment, education. Whilst the main matter - how to govern - remains up in the air.
The most pressing matter now for the men and women here is the release of some 3,000 political prisoners, members of outlawed parties, who remain in prison. The 'interim' government, who have power until March, has issued a decree that many, if not all, will now be granted an amnesty, and released. The people here are sceptical.
A chant goes up, a thundering aural wave;
'We are SERIOUS about the release of prisoners' it lasts minutes.
Hamza Hamza, brings cheers when he says 'The must be amnesty for you (prisoners) because you are innocent!' There is a call too for compensation for the families of those killed and imprisoned by the old regime. But it's not possible to imagine at this time, who will be in power to pay such sums, and where, in this roller coaster political climate, such money will come from.

A former prisoner takes the stage. He talks in a voice wavering with emotion of the wives, the sisters, the mothers, who suffered humiliation and agony under the dictator Ben Ali. And that's all it takes. The Tunisian men all but break down, young and old. The hall is  a single, gasping, heaving, sob of gratitude and release. It is clear at this moment, more than any other, how little the world knows about the suffering these people have gone through. Whilst tourists have safely enjoyed the pleasure of the sandy beaches of Carthage and cocktails in five star hotel complexes, what horrors were being visited nearby on local families? How many men vanished? How many women were humiliated and assaulted during prison visits to their loved ones?
'I wish' begins the man, but can hardly go on. 'I wish, my mother had lived to see this day, to see me free..'
The sobs go on and on. All around us, Tunisian men remember the sacrifice and pain of their beloved womenfolk for the past three decades. Men in leather coats sob/chant 'Allahu Akbhar!'
Several in our delegation, myself included, find ourselves crying with them.
Suddenly another chant rises, one that takes us by surprise
'Al- Jaz -eer -a! Al- Jaz-eer- a!'
The man has thanked the news channel for following the Tunisian cause.

Let us hope it may continue to follow this story in the coming months as well.

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