At around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, September 14, director Allan Bredy, his sons, and staff had chased out the last of the looters from the American Cooperative School in Tunis’ (ACST) campus.
The damage, however, had already been done. The elementary school’s library, which contained 10,000 books, was burnt down. Classrooms had been stripped of anything valuable, LCD projectors smashed, two minibuses torched, and 300 computers – most of which were brand new MacBook Pros – all stolen. In an interview with Tunisia Live, Dorsaf Kouki, a teacher at ACST for 20 years, lamented the loss of the school’s musical equipment, as well as the destruction of the amphitheater, which she considered “the masterpiece of the school.”
“It was completely inhumane,” said Kouki, who could not comprehend that such an event could happen to “a place of tolerance and open-mindedness.”
That same afternoon, the US embassy in Tunis, which lies across the highway from the school, was attacked, and its perimeter breached, by protesters who set fire to cars in the parking lot and vandalized sections of the compound.
The demonstration was in protest to an incendiary movie that insults the life of the Prophet Mohammed and is reported by multiple sources to have been produced by a member of the Egyptian Coptic diaspora in the US.
Bredy, who witnessed the acts of looting and arson as they were happening in the school, retold the chronology of Friday’s events to reporters and Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), who visited the school yesterday.
According to Bredy’s account, there were two waves of trespassers that wrecked damage to the school.
The first wave was made up of what Bredy characterized as “salafists,” who are religious conservatives that claim to follow the ways of the Prophet and his companions. According to Bredy, they first broke the security cameras at the entrance and proceeded to destroy surveillance equipment in the school’s security room. The burning of the elementary school’s library and the adjacent classrooms was undertaken by this first wave of protesters as well.
The first call for help by the school was made at 2:30 p.m., recounted Bredy.
As the library laid burning, the second wave of encroachers, whom Bredy described as young delinquents, entered the school’s premises and went classroom by classroom breaking equipment and stealing anything of value. Their mentality was “take it or break it,” said Kouki. It was in this second wave that all the computers were stolen from the technology laboratory.
A total of 20 staff members, including Bredy, intervened during the course of the looting, driving away trespassers with baseball bats and other objects and taking back some of the items that were being stolen.
The looters that Bredy and his colleagues encountered offered little resistance and mostly scurried away, leaving behind their plunder. “They were embarrassed,” Bredy said of these trespassers.
Three hours after the first call for help was made, security forces finally came to the scene.
“The response was horrible,” said Bredy. “They [in the government] know that.”
During the tour of the school that Bredy gave to Ben Jaafar yesterday, the former reminded the head of the NCA of the government’s obligation to protect the school.
“The responsibility of the government of Tunisia is to protect us,” Bredy asserted.
No student was hurt at all during the incident. ACST’s administration had received earlier reports that there would be protests on Friday in front of the US embassy and decided to dismiss students at noon.
“It could have been a disaster if the kids were here,” said Bredy, wincing at the thought of it.
In a statement to the press after the tour, Ben Jaafar deemed Friday’s incident at ACST as “a big crime” and voiced his frustration.
“Today, I felt a lot of anger. The beautiful image of our revolution was distorted,” said Ben Jaafar. “The Tunisian people are a tolerant people who have lived through so many civilizations. It’s why we’ve always respected others and their differences.”
Bredy echoed Ben Jaafar’s point, “Tunisians are no more involved in this than you or me in the [anti-Islam] movie.”
For Bredy and the rest of the school’s community, the gratuitous destruction and pillaging of the school have been devastating. In a show of solidarity, students have been visiting the school to express their willingness to help in the clean up and restoration of the school, said Kouki.
Bredy and other school officials are now reaching out to the families of the student body to address the shock that the event has brought upon the community.
According to Bredy, ACST’s teachers are all staying, and the only students that have left are children of US embassy personnel, following an order by the State Department on Saturday.
Bredy also stated that the American School will reopen next Monday, September 24, and floated the idea of holding classes in the gym.
Criticized by many for its inability to prevent the spiraling violence last Friday, the Tunisian government is now taking concrete actions to ensure the restoration of the school.
Yesterday, Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs Hedi Ben Abbes, along with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local municipal workers, came to the school to begin in the cleaning process. 24-hour perimeter security has been put in place. In addition, the government has promised to expedite the delivery of necessary school equipment and materials through customs.
Kouki described most of the looters as “unemployed, young people” from the neighborhood near the school.
Already, 40 arrests have been made in connection to the theft of American School property and half a dozen locals have come forward to give information regarding the whereabouts of some of the school’s equipment, according to Bredy. Additionally, he stated that many others are anonymously leaving laptops and other stolen items in the streets to be collected by the local municipality for fear of arrest.
The American School in Tunis has been educating students from international backgrounds for over 50 years and currently serves 650 students, whose parents mostly work in embassies, the African Development Bank and other international bodies and multinational corporations.
Bredy stated that the American School has faced tough times before in its history and had come close to shutting down once or twice before. However, neither Kouki nor Bredy can remember a time that has tested the solidarity of the school’s community as much as last Friday’s incident.