While some Tunisians saw the revolution as an opportunity to start anew, others remain trapped in the memories of a painful past.
Lamia Farhani, a Tunisian lawyer whose brother was shot with a bullet to the neck on January 13th 2011, is one of those. “I can’t call what happened in Tunisia the Jasmine Revolution…Those who call it the Jasmine Revolution did not smell the horrible scent of martyrs’ blood and only smelled the scent of Jasmine from far away. They only saw one side of the events and did not see the ugly face of the revolution. They did not witness Tunisians running in the halls of the hospitals trying to save an amputated arm or a gouged eye,” she said.
Farhani and others testified last Thursday at a conference organized by Freedom House Tunisia. The event aimed to tackle the issue of transitional justice in post-revolutionary Tunisia and provide the victims of the former regimes with an opportunity to share their painful experiences.
Farhani was devastated when she lost her teenage brother, Anis Farhani. She decided to devote much of her time to helping victims of the Tunisian uprising. She founded an association named, “Awfiaa,” or “faithful,” to advocate for the rights of the victims and wounded of the revolution.
The Tunisian revolution allowed many oppressed voices to open up and speak out about their past grievances either under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or his predecessor Habib Bourguiba. Neither president had much tolerance for dissent.
Amel Bennour, wife and mother of three, became one of Ben Ali’s victims when she was jailed for eight months without a fair trial. Wearing the Islamic headscarf was her crime. She was a mother raising three children on her own as her husband, an Islamic studies teacher, had already been imprisoned for his religiosity. When the security forces came to arrest her, they told her that they were taking her to see her husband. “My sister had to drop out of school in order to take care of my children,” recounted Bennour.
Bennour described her time in jail as her worst nightmare. “I was abused verbally and physically…They made me sign things that I did not say. Under torture, I would sign anything as long as they didn’t sexually abuse me…I was so scared of that. Thank God, they did not rape me or sexually harass me,” she added.
Bennour’s story did not end when she was released from jail. “Even after leaving prison, the regime attempted to prevent me and my husband from working and providing a decent life for our children. The regime tried to blockade us… My children suffered from psychological problems. They were so young to understand what was happening around them…They thought their parents were criminals.”
Abdedayem Noumi is also a former political prisoner. He was married and had two daughters when they arrested him in 1991 for being affiliated with the Islamist Movement. The political police forced Noumi’s wife to get a divorce after humiliating her and threatening to put her in jail.
“I spent eight years in prison. I know all the different types of torture. I can spend hours and hours telling the atrocities that were exercised against political prisoners… Not only Islamists suffered under the Ben Ali regime.The regime did not make the difference between rightists or leftists or activists.”
Noumi also revealed how the prisons’ medical staff colluded with the regime to torture the prisoners:
“In one day, I was beaten so hard on my belly that I had an internal hemorrhage. They took me to the hospital and I went through surgery…But to increase my pains, the doctors left the wounds open and I was taken back to my cell in the same day of the surgery,” he explained while showing the scars that he still carries.
Noumi admitted that he is still unable to help his family move away from their sad past. “After spending eight years in prison and after missing my daughters’ childhood, I was like a stranger to them. Until now, my daughters are unable to call me dad… It is still so hard for them to get over the deprivation of affection that they endured in their childhood.”
The newly created Ministry of Transitional Justice and Human Rights, along with civil society organizations and victims of the former regime, are deciding on the best approach to bring justice to those whose lives suffered grave hardships under the Ben Ali and Bourguiba governments.