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In town at center of Tunisia uprising, 23 years of repressed emotions burst forth

The Monitor's correspondent describes getting mobbed as she pulled out her notebook and witnessing a scuffle at the home of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia's uprising.

By Correspondent / January 19, 2011

A Tunisian talks to a soldier as he defies the curfew in the center of Tunis, on Jan. 19. A Tunisian prosecutor opened an investigation into the overseas assets of the ousted president and his deeply resented family Wednesday, as the U.N.'s human rights chief said more than 100 people have died during five weeks of unrest.

Thibault Camus/AP

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Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

The dusty provincial town where Tunisia’s revolution started doesn’t look like it’s accustomed to attention.

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It never received much until Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office, igniting the anger that eventually engulfed the 23-year rule of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Now, Sidi Bouzid is in the spotlight for the first time. The trip to the epicenter of the revolution has become a pilgrimage for the international media that has flocked to Tunisia since four weeks of popular protest forced Ben Ali to abdicate power.

And as I discovered on my trip there today, it’s adjusting to the media attention in its own way.

I open my notebook, and a flash mob forms

When I arrived today after a 3.5-hour car trip through verdant hills of olive groves that gave way to a flat expanse of rocky soil broken by cactus hedges, the first thing that caught my eye was the dozens of young men seemingly everywhere – loitering on the sidewalks, sitting in cafes. I stopped to talk to a few.

Almost the second I opened my notebook, a huge crowd gathered around me, pressing in on me from all sides. Everyone wanted to have his or her say.

They all talked at once, loudly, in Arabic, English, and French, telling me about the miserable conditions that had led to the uprising. It was as if they had been silent for so long, enduring injustice and hardship without acknowledgment, that now that the dam had broken, and there was no stopping the rush of words.

“There are no jobs,” said one man. “We all have university degrees, and we sit in cafes all day. The government ignored us.”

Another jutted in, shouting over the first. “If you want a job here, you have to pay the Trabelsi family,” he said, referring to the family of Ben Ali’s wife, Laila Trabelsi, who engenders a special hatred in most Tunisians.

A woman plucked insistently at my sleeve. “See this?” she said, pointing to her hijab. “Ben Ali made this illegal in Tunis.”

I was quickly overwhelmed by the crush of people. I’ve never before in my work experienced such a phenomenon, where crowds appeared every time I opened my notebook. And it happened each time I tried to interview someone on the street in Sidi Bouzid. Clearly, people were ready to finally have their say.

Visiting Bouazizi's modest home

Eventually I made my way to the home of Mr. Bouazizi’s family. It was a 20-minute walk from the city center, down dusty roads that got smaller until they were lined by humble homes hidden behind walled courtyards. Through an open door, I could see laundry lines crisscrossing above a dirt courtyard.

The streets were quiet. A few women in traditional dress walked the treeless road.

Clearly, I was not the first to arrive at the Bouazizi home. I could barely get into their modest but well-kept cement courtyard, walled on one side with unfinished brick, that was already filled with TV crews, journalists, and what appeared to be curious neighbors.

I stood back as a TV crew prepared to interview Bouazizi’s mother, a widow who lives there with her other children. But suddenly she became upset, shouted something, and went inside. Someone in the courtyard asked people to get out.

One of the neighbors didn’t want to leave, and a scuffle broke out. There was shouting, and suddenly I saw a man running toward me brandishing a club, and another with a large rock in his hands. The curious neighbors standing around quickly scattered as the man ran to the Bouazizi house and banged on the door with his club. He was upset and erratic, and I scurried to find cover in a nearby doorway.

Meeting Bouazizi's 'childhood friend'

Not long after, I ended up in someone’s home along with two other journalists, interviewing a young man who claimed to be a childhood friend of Bouazizi. He told us stories about the young man, saying they went through school together and were close.

But red flags came up – he claimed to be the same age as Bouazizi, but his dates didn’t add up. He kept trying to steer the conversation toward a human rights organization he wanted to set up, which needed international funding. When we asked how many siblings Bouazizi had, he said seven. But actually, Bouazizi only had five siblings.

It was a frustrating end to an interesting day in Sidi Bouzid.

Tunisia has long been a victim of harsh media censorship. People deserve to have their voices heard for the first time, and clearly they were eager for the international media to listen. But the scene at Bouazizi’s house reminded me that while we have an important job to do, we also have to be careful to do it well.

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