Ariana residents woke up this morning to the sound of government bulldozers demolishing up to thirty unfinished neighborhood constructions, ahead of proposed plans to demolish a number of residents’ homes next month.
The structures were located in Ariana’s neighborhood of “El hay mostakbel,” where a number of homes and structures have been built on what officials ruled to be government property. None of the structures demolished were being used as residencies, or otherwise inhabited at the time of the demolition.
“They woke me up at 4:30 in the morning,” said Aziz, an 11-year old boy who lives in the neighborhood. “I came out of my home and saw bulldozers everywhere destroying houses.”
Conflicting reports have emerged between government officials and community residents in the wake of the incident.
Ariana governor Saloua Khiari said in an interview that the demolition came after careful negotiations and a public announcement had taken place.
“The land here is state land,” she said “And we must protect the property of the state.”
When asked about the fate of those who live there, Khiari emphasized that for now, only surrounding structures have been dismantled. The homes themselves will be dealt with in the future on a case to case basis, she said.
For local residents–many of whom have been living and building there for years–the history is more complicated, with disputes over land predating Tunisia’s revolution. Many claim to have lived there from as early as 1996, and some even possess what they claim are official land deeds.
Governor Khiari, however, disputed the legitimacy of such contracts saying that those who bought the land have likely been subjected to fraud.
Controversy erupted in 2009, when, according to locals, the Trabelsi family–relatives of the ousted former first lady Leila Trabelsi–began efforts to gain ownership of the property. In 2010, the land was officially seized by the government and declared state property. For years afterwards, many residents claim that they were unable to live or work on the property for fear of retaliation from the Trebelsis.
Long suspected of the widespread theft of state assets, the full extent of the Trabelsi family’s pre-revolutionary activities is still emerging. Following a lengthy investigation by the Tunisian Press Agency and others in October 2015, Belhassen Trabelsi, one of the families leading figures, was linked to an extensive network of accounts and holdings in Swiss banks. However, while the total amount of money gained or removed from the country fraudulently remains unknown, it is estimated to run to the millions.
Further to the financial assets taken from the country before the revolution, local efforts have centered on reclaiming the land residents felt had been obtained fraudulently by the Trabelsi, which the government is now laying claim to.
“If the land was owned by the government, why have they let us live here for six years,” asked Kamel Khmiri, a resident of the neighborhood. “Why didn’t they just stop us from the beginning.”
Mansour Khlifa, another neighborhood resident, was equally distraught.
“If they take my home away, where should I go with my children?” he asked.
“If they want us to go to Libya and Algeria and leave the country, we will leave. We just have no place to go to.”
Additional reporting by Youssef Bouafif.