“Shouldn’t the state compensate us for what happened? Aren’t we citizens of this country as well?” said Mustapha Jadli, a 21-year old Khmouda resident whose father died in the accident in the region last August, when a truck crashed into the old city market.
Jadli recounts the day his Mother learnt about his father’s death from a neighbor at the scene. The man had retrieved his dead father’s phone from his pocket to answer a call from Jhadli’s mother. He then had to explain why her husband had not answered. Jadli learned of the tragedy only later, waking up to the sound of his sister screaming. Their mother had told her daughter the news first. “I was overwhelmed and lost touch with reality,” she said.
The accident occurred on August the 31st in the small town of Khmouda, near Kasserine, when a cement truck veered out of control and crashed into a busy souk, killing 16 and injuring 85, many of whom suffered horrendous burns after an electricity pylon caught fire and ignited a further fire amidst the parked cars. For many, the accident as well as the crises that followed, as medical treatment, compensation and reconstruction were slow in coming highlighted the urgent need to finally address the region’s long-standing issues over safety and poor infrastructure.
For the Jadli family, the effects of the accident stretched beyond their father’s death. Despite 27 years of service at Kasserine Youth Center, the father’s death left the Jadli family with no income and no support. Despite government assurances to the contrary, numerous attempts to raise the matter with local and national officials, including the Minister of Youth and Sports got Jadli nowhere. In the end, Jadli had no choice but to drop out of school and support his family himself.
According to a report by the Global Road Safety Partnership, road accidents kill 1.500 people on average in Tunisia per year. Syrine Guediche, spokesperson from the Association of Road Safety told Tunisia Live last July: “ Our infrastructure, along with the safety precautions designed to alleviate accidents are not very advanced when compared to developed countries.”
The death toll and the resulting destruction in Kasserine sparked a debate in Tunisia about the dire situation of its terrorism torn region, now experiencing increasing levels of violence and youth unemployment. Lawful residents stress the need to prevent further death and destruction. President of the republic, Beji Caid Essebsi had promised moral and material compensation for those affected by an accident ready to aggravate an already severe condition. This, however, never materialized. Government officials including the Minister of Health, the Minister of Transport, and the Minister of Defence visited Kasserine to pay their condolences to the victims’ families, and promised immediate measures to help cope with the tragedy, but little more.
Those lucky enough not to lose their loved ones were nonetheless heavily affected. Rimeh Hassni, a 21-year-old college student studying French Literature and civilization, explained the lack of governmental support after the accident: “Not everyone was compensated. They took care of some cases for public display and left many others.” To Rimeh, the real heroes were the local people, who came together to grieve, as well as clean the streets, and later, to protest in order to raise awareness about the incident.
Hassni, another local resident, witnessed the accident unfold. She lives just opposite the marketplace, and watched as what she describes as a “traumatic” incident unfolded in front of her:“I saw a woman who stood in front of the bus, frozen in shock, until it hit her. Her husband is sick and her son had just graduated. This accident changed their lives forever.” Rimeh also recounts the shock on learning about the identities of the burned bodies: they belonged to her neighbors and people she knew from her community. With time and effort, she was able to overcome the initial trauma of losing parts of her community.
As for local authorities, a coalition of administrations gathered after the incident to list the measures required to address the region’s economic and infrastructural issues, as seen on a document obtained from the department of transport in Kasserine. These decisions include changing the route and movement of heavy trucks through the area, moving the souk’s location to a safer area, and closing the front door of Khmouda’s middle school to avoid having children exposed to the health hazards from the main streets.
To Moustafa, these decisions are short-sighted, and in the long term, futile. The structural issues with lack of safety and economic hardships remain unaddressed. He says that he will keep fighting for justice in the wake of his father’s death and to support his family, after the state failed to deliver on its promises.
“I wish that the state would look at our situation from a humanitarian side and do something about it. Nonetheless, I thank god, and hope that we will be able to overcome this tragedy.”
Hassin Khedimi, the governor of Kasserine, was called through his secretary for comment, but was unable to give a reply.
Mondher Tounsi is a civil society activist from Kasserine