Monday, May 30, 2011

The Spark

Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 14, 2011

Every revolution requires a catalyst, a tipping point. A spark to start the flame. For the Arab World, Tunisia was the instrument giving millions of people hope that change was possible.

When the foreign photo editor of the New York Times called me late in the afternoon on Jan. 12, 2011, I was aware that demonstrations had reached Tunisia's capital, Tunis. I was instructed to get to Tunis immediately. I packed my bags in ten minutes and raced to the airport.

I had no idea, no concept, that this trip would change my life, and that what would happen in Tunisia would change the course of history in the Arab World.

The tipping point for Tunisians was a young man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. A 26-year-old college graduate, Boazizi, like many young Tunisians, was scraping by, barely earning enough to support his family. He was a fruit vendor on the streets of his home village Sidi Bouzid. One day in mid-December 2010, police confiscated his merchandise and his scale. Then they beat him. Refused the chance to even plead his case, he went to the middle of the street in front of the governor's office and set himself on fire.

The spark.

This act struck a chord with the people of Sidi Bouzid. In most Arab countries, corruption, injustice and oppression had been the norm for decades. Residents of Sidi Bouzid began protesting on the streets, raising their voices for dignity and justice. Despite a crackdown by the Tunisian government on the demonstrations, other Tunisians in other cities heard the call. The movement spread like wildfire via Facebook and Twitter. By the time Bouazizi died on Jan. 4, 2011, the demonstrations had nearly reached Tunis.

I arrived in Tunis on January 13. Americans can enter Tunisia without a visa, but the passport officials took about two seconds to figure out that I was a journalist. They searched my luggage and confiscated my equipment, insisting that I needed permission from the press office to retrieve my gear. I refused to leave the airport without my cameras and spent the next several hours pushing, pleading, making phone calls and basically making a nuisance of myself.

Finally at about 3 p.m., they relented and I was on my way. The Times' correspondent David Kirkpatrick was reporting riots in a town 70 km outside Tunis called Hammamet. I hopped in a taxi to meet him there.

When I arrived this is what I saw:

Residents of Hammamet were gathered at the mansion of a relative of the president, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. Throughout his presidency, Ben Ali had filtered money and privilege into the hands of his small circle of relatives and friends. This made the extravagant living quarters of this small group of people very visible targets for Tunisian anger.


Rioters had already torched the home and others set to looting the goods inside. I had never seen anything like this. Many of my colleagues had watched Baghdad fall, had seen the chaos of other urban conflicts. In my relatively short time in the Middle East, I had only seen protests crushed by riot police, and demonstrators afraid to drop over the precipice.


I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting the police to arrive and smash my cameras. But nobody came.


It was bizarre and unsettling to watch. I was the only photographer there. For awhile, nobody took much notice of me. I guess they were too caught up in the moment. In Afghanistan and other conflict areas where I have worked, I have learned from my colleagues how to gauge how long I should stay in risky areas. In this case, I had no barometer, no one to ask, just my own intuition to go on.


The outside walls of the kitchen were made of glass. I had never seen what happens when people go out of their minds with rage.


Although they were stealing right before my eyes, some people made a point of reminding me that they were simply taking what they felt was theirs. The spoils of their hard work, stolen by the powerful.


It makes sense in a twisted way. A swimming pool? A gleaming white mansion and spacious garden right on the sea? And just outside the walled compound, people working their tails off to barely keep a roof over their heads.


The graffiti reads, "Death to Ben Ali."


At some point people began to get more aggressive toward me and my cameras. Time to leave.


I found David and we walked to his waiting taxi at the edge of town--the driver was too afraid to come closer--and we rode back in to Tunis together.
Click here to read my colleague David Kirkpatrick's account of this day.


In what must have been a last-ditch effort, the president and ruling party organized a pro-government rally that evening in the capital. A small group (but large enough to be noticed) hit the streets with flags, placards and beautifully-printed banners.


At the time, I thought it was a decent show of support, perhaps because I didn't have anything to compare it to. But, in hindsight, it was like they were standing in the ocean trying to prevent a tsunami from hitting the shore.


Perhaps the rally had been in the works for awhile--or perhaps the government kept a stock of pro-government, pro-Ben Ali material at hand for just such a moment. I wondered who these people were: civil servants? Police? Rising ruling party members?


Maybe Ben Ali already knew what would happen the next day. Maybe he had already packed his bags. But did Mubarak know? Did Qaddafi?

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