Guellala, a small town in the south of the Tunisian island of Djerba, was the scene of violent clashes between police and locals on Saturday. Residents had organised a sit-in to call for the closure of a rubbish dump that has been polluting their area. Since then, the authorities have strongly condemned the violence of the protesters, without mentioning that police fired live bullets.
Opened in May 2007, the Guellala rubbish dump was designed to serve the town of 13,000 inhabitants for 15 years. It has provoked the anger of residents ever since the dykes of this open-air dump began slowly breaking down, thus polluting the land around it. To prevent the spread of disease and limit the damage to the environment, local residents rallied to demand the site be closed immediately, a closure the government does not plan on carrying out before then end of 2013. According to the Tunisian interior ministry, the confrontation between police and protesters resulted in injuries to 49 police officers and two demonstrators.
“This shows who was responsible for the violence: the protesters and not the police,” the ministry’s spokesperson said, stressing that no arrests were made. Djerba, where the beaches attract foreign tourists, has until now been largely spared this types of violence, whereas other parts of the country have often seen protests deteriorate into open confrontations with the police. Najeh Bayech is a lawyer and lives in Guellala. He’s working on a report denouncing police violence during Saturday’s incident. The police clearly went to the site to pick a fight.
They launched tear gas without warning, thereby unleashing a wave of panic among the demonstrators, who quickly scattered. But what happened next was even more astonishing. Without any explanation, the police converged on the city centre to spread the disorder there. The officers began by hurling insults at people before again firing tear gas. At that point, the whole population, and not just protesters, was targeted. Men, women, and children ran in all directions. People were scared and some responded to the repeated aggression of the police by throwing stones.
If you ask me, the police acted like thugs that day. Someone whom I know very well, Mohamed Ali Borgi, was hit by a live bullet in the leg and had to be hospitalised at Sfax [this was confirmed by the hospital]. They ransacked a dried fruits store and the owner told me he would file a complaint. I have also heard they stole packets of cigarettes, but I can’t confirm this because I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I don’t deny the fact that several policemen could have been injured during the confrontations, but the Interior Minister is not telling the truth when he pins the blame on the people.