Thursday, June 16, 2011

Snipers

When I was finally able to, I went with a couple other photographers to Kram, a suburb where violence and looting had been reported. Kram is next to the suburb of Carthage, where some of the president and his family's mansions were located. The trains were operating again, so we took one to Carthage on Sunday, two days after Ben Ali left office. One of the other photographers had gotten to know some young Tunisians from the area who said they would meet us at the station and help guide us.

A note about working with other photographers: it's not easy, especially if you don't know the people you're working with well. It's creatively frustrating. Everyone has a different style and a different idea of how much time to spend in one place and how far to push. It's not ideal from an editor's standpoint, as sometimes competing photographers have similar photos. And it can be especially bad when there are too many in a group. Four is usually too many. Three is alright. Two is about perfect. (We were four.) On the positive side, it's great to be able to share resources, ideas and camaraderie.

The biggest reason people work as a group is for safety, so that you can look out for each other, especially in volatile situations. If one of the team members disappears from the group and nobody can reach him on his mobile phone for 20 minutes, everyone has to stop what they are doing and try to figure out what happened and where the person could be. The idea is to stay within sight of one another.

I'd also like to mention here that, while writers can do some of their work by telephone, photographers must be out, on the ground, documenting the situation in person. There is no substitute for being there. It is another reason photographers sometimes team up in these situations--we need compelling photographs, even if we can't always agree on how to get them.

So, back to Kram. Rioters had stolen cars from local dealerships and set them on fire. Burned-out cars were scattered all over--in parking lots, along the side of the street, and in otherwise empty fields like the one above.


People were stocking up on food and water, as all the shops would close for the day at 4 p.m., well before curfew time. Uncertainty was in the air. People seemed to be buying in bulk.


Bread lines were long.


It's always a little strange seeing regular folks out tending to their business alongside the refuse of chaos.


Tunisian guys shot mobile phone videos in the looted and vandalized home of Jelila Trabelsi, sister of President Ben Ali's wife, in Carthage. The Trabelsi family was blamed by many of the protesters in Tunis for massive corruption and plundering of the national coffers.


After January 14, people in the community weren't sure they could trust the police to keep them safe anymore. In hopes of preventing retribution, looting, intimidation, and random acts of violence, the curfew was strictly enforced in Kram by self-appointed neighborhood watch committees. They built roadblocks, like the one above, with anything they could find, and policed them after curfew started in the late afternoon.


RCD (ruling party) headquarters in Kram. This office was burned and looted too.


Posters and placards supporting Ben Ali covered the floor.


Inside the burned-out headquarters.


We made our way back to downtown Tunis, where there were quite a few police and men on the street.

When I arrived in Tunis on the 13th, my suitcase did not. I had all of my camera equipment with me and the clothes on my back, but nothing else. Because of all the upheaval, no stores were open. I found myself in the middle of a revolution with no toothbrush. (The hotel didn't have one--I asked.) A friend had offered to bring me a few toiletries on her way in from Cairo, so David and I arranged to go get the stuff, and wanted to go out to have a late-afternoon look around another neighborhood, but only had time to get back to the hotel before curfew started.

We were dropped off in the vicinity of Hotel Africa around 4 p.m. Bourguiba Avenue was blocked by tanks and soldiers, so we would need to walk the last few blocks. As the driver sped away from us, we heard the crack of gunfire echo through the now-empty streets. We looked at each other. We walked down the side street closest to us and heard more gunfire. Great. Apparently snipers were firing from the rooftops.

We saw tense police with their weapons raised so I raised both my hands. They told us to stay close to the buildings as we walked. We turned down a lane leading to Bourguiba and the air around us erupted in gunfire. We took cover among tables and chairs at a sidewalk cafe. I grabbed the camera at my side, but a large, armed policeman shouted at me, "No photos!"

A man motioned to us from a small hotel across the lane. "Come inside, quickly!" We ran across and found ourselves in the company of state security officers who were hiding in the tiny hotel lobby. It's the same old story really: you're stuck for some reason in an enclosed space with state security and they proceed to interrogate you. Sigh. After again being hounded by the agents not to take photographs, the shooting finally let up, so David and I got out of there.

A few meters further and we had to take cover again, in the entryway to a store with a bunch of policemen. One of them asked me if I had heard about the armed European spies they had caught? (Turns out some Swedes were in fact on the world's worst poorly-timed hunting trip. I am not making this up! Read here.)

We finally made it to Bourguiba. It was completely silent. We made a run for it across the wide avenue and managed to get inside Hotel Africa without incident.

The sound of gunfire continued to echo long into the night. At around 10 p.m., I learned that the friends of Lucas Dolega, the injured photographer, had been on their way back from the hospital around 4:30 and had been caught in the crossfire. They were pinned down by heavy shooting and had to take cover beneath an armored personnel carrier. By the time I heard about it, they had been stuck outside in the gun battle between police, snipers and the army, for six hours. They finally made it back in to the hotel around midnight.

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