Trouble in the Wild East
The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
On March 7, Omar, a 20-year-old man from the southern Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane, woke to the sound of helicopters and gunshots. “I was scared,” he recalled recently. “I thought that someone was bombing us. I thought it was a war.”
It wasn’t. The ruckus was the result of a bold bid by Libyan jihadis to seize control of his town. The fighters in question came from the Libyan branch of the so-called Islamic State, which at the time had a base in Sabratha, 60 miles from the border. Clashes between the Tunisian military and Islamic State fighters, many of whom are originally from Tunisia, ultimately went on for three days, resulting in 52 deaths among the militants and 12 deaths among security forces. Eight civilians, including a 12-year-old girl, also lost their lives.
By then, Ben Guerdane had already become infamous as a source of Tunisian recruits leaving for the wars in Syria and Iraq. The Soufan Group, a security consultancy, estimated in December 2015 that around 15 percent of Tunisian jihadis active in the conflicts abroad hail from this town of just 80,000 people.
Omar (whose last name is omitted to protect his privacy) said that local people weren’t entirely surprised by the attack. “We know that the dawaesh are here,” he said using a derogatory term for Islamic State members. (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the group.) “We know how close we are to Libya. It was just a matter of time before they hit us.”
The deaths caused by the fighting weren’t the only casualties of the attack, Omar hastened to add. The violence also prompted authorities to shut down the Ras Jedir border crossing, the main local conduit for the transit of goods and people between the two countries. Like other Tunisian border towns, Ben Guerdane relies heavily on smuggling and other forms of cross-border trade to boost its otherwise dismal economy.
Omar — who works at a store that sells carpets, blankets, appliances, and other home goods – keenly felt the loss of business during the several weeks the crossing remained closed. He and his boss often travel to Libya to buy cheap goods, insisting that they never resort to illicit smuggling routes. Yet he also admitted that his boss knows “ways” to avoid paying import taxes.
His boss isn’t the only one. Customs enforcement along the border tends to be opaque and arbitrary. According to a 2013 International Crisis Group report, it is not uncommon for smugglers to pay bribes when crossing, which usually entails having a police officer or customs official act as an unofficial protector. This, the report says, is the “unwritten code of practice” that governs trade here. The problem, of course, is that such a porous border also virtually invites infiltration by jihadi insurgents who operate more or less freely on the Libyan side. (The Tunisian man who killed 38 people in his infamous attack on the beach resort of Sousse in June 2015 is thought to have trained in Libya.)
A government crackdown on cross-border traffic might well make it harder on terrorists to move back and forth. But in the absence of any alternate measures to boost the local economy, such a measure would also almost certainly exacerbate joblessness and poverty in an already underdeveloped region — precisely since so many families rely on the informal sector.
“It’s the only source of income for people here,” said Omar. “It’s more important than anyone can imagine. It’s not only the people who bring the goods and sell them here who benefit from open borders.” Virtually every business in the area, he said, depends on the crossing. “Ras Jedir is like life for us. If they open the border, we eat. If they close it, we starve.”
When I visited Ben Guerdane recently, the borders were still closed, meaning that almost everything else was, too. Only a few restaurants and coffee shops were open. The town, which usually hums with activity, felt dead and deserted. Only a few of the dozens of currency exchange booths that line both sides of the main avenue were open. Shop owners napped and watched TV. The sense of pessimism and desperation was palpable.
Ezzedine, a black market currency trader, told me that his business has suffered severely since the March attacks. “It was never a great income to begin with. But now it’s gone from bad to worse.”
For traders like Ezzedine and Omar, the border with Libya is their lifeblood. Omar said that he went to Libya before he ever traveled elsewhere in Tunisia. “Libya gave me a lot,” he said. “My own country didn’t give me anything.”
Omar, who has a short, compact build and whose face and forearms are bronzed from moving wares under the scorching desert sun, helps support his family with his monthly salary of $200. Though his line of work — particularly the transport — can be rough, he is soft-spoken, even gentle in his demeanor. He regrets having had to drop out of school at the age of 13.
“Staying in school wasn’t an option for me,” he said. “It would have made my life easier, but I had to start working.”
His family of seven depended on his father’s business as a small trader, and when he fell ill, Omar had to step in and assume the burden of supporting them all. He has a brother who was compelled to work in war-torn Libya because he couldn’t find a decent-paying job in Tunisia. “My future is up in the air,” Omar told me. “My current job isn’t stable. I have no plan. My goal is to be able to afford a good life, but I don’t really see how I can do that.”
As a result, Omar is now considering doing a year of military service, and then perhaps going on to a career in the army. (Though Tunisia has compulsory military service, the requirement can be waived for men like Omar who can prove that they are financially responsible for a family.) His limited education and lack of vocational training mean that his chances of finding a job in a different sector are slim. He says he likes the stability that a government job would offer. He wants what people here in Tunisia refer to a mosmar fi heet, literally “a nail in the wall” – a reference to the comfort and stability of public sector jobs. He also believes that joining the army is a duty.
“The media are always telling us that Ben Guerdane is the ‘land of terrorism,’” he said bitterly. “They forgot that it’s the men of Ben Guerdane who protected the whole country from terrorism.” Omar was referring to the fact that civilians reportedly played an important role during the jihadi attempt to capture his hometown. “This is our country,” he said. “And if we don’t protect it, nobody else will.”
Photo credit: FATHI NASRI/AFP/Getty Images
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