Tunisia attack: Heavy security and whitewashed walls as Sousse tries to move on

By Orla Guerin
BBC News

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Image source, AFP

Two years after the deadly shootings at Sousse in Tunisia, the walls and the economy of the resort town are still marked by the tragedy while the hotel where the attack took place prepares to re-open.

Bullet holes still pock mark the walls of a side street that leads to a picture-perfect beach in the resort town of Sousse.

This is where a lone gunman was shot dead almost two years ago - but only after he had slaughtered 38 tourists, 30 of them British.

Tunisia's tourist sector was another casualty of the attack. It used to account for 12% of economic activity. Now the figure has dropped and is closer to 7%.

If the walls - and the economy - still bear the scars, there are visible changes in Sousse.

Image caption,
Bullet holes are still visible on the ground at the scene of the attack

Heavily armed police officers man permanent checkpoints at access routes to tourist hotels. There are army units on patrol. Vehicles are checked at hotel gates, and guests must pass through metal detectors.

Tunisia is now "100% safe" for tourists, according to the country's Investment Minister, Fadel Abdel Kafi.

"We improved our security a lot and we think that tourism will be coming back in the next few months," Mr Kafi told us.

"We have good indications for summer 2017, and we would be very happy to see British coming back to Tunisia."

'Stricter and stronger'

In the year before the attack - which was claimed by so-called Islamic State (IS) - more than 400,000 Britons visited the country. Their absence is keenly felt.

"When will we listen to this language again?" asked a waiter who heard a BBC team speaking English.

"We miss this so much. It sounds like poetry."

For now the British government is advising tourists against travel to Tunisia, in spite of the country's security upgrade.

The co-owner of Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel - where the attack happened - admits the improvements came late.

Mohamed Becheur says the turning point should have been in March 2015 when 24 tourists were gunned down in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

"It should have been stricter and stronger, after the Bardo attack to be honest with you," said Mr Becheur.

"It should have been. But there is a before 26 June and there is an after. This is not the same country any more."

Image caption,
Mohamed Becheur, co-owner of the hotel where the attack happened, regrets more was not done after the Bardo Museum attack

It was on that day that a student called Seifeddine Rezgui went on a killing spree. Locals say he was on the loose for about 40 minutes.

The attack could have been stopped right at the outset, according to a Tunisian judge, but armed guards on patrol and nearby police held back.

The judge's report revealed that one coast guard officer fainted in panic, and members of the tourist police - who were just three minutes away - deliberately delayed their arrival.

'No-one came'

In their absence it was left to beach workers like Mahdi Jammelli to chase the killer.

The young Tunisian was selling jet ski rides when he heard the shooting. He ran after the gunman, armed only with two ashtrays.

"At the beginning, I thought the police will come with me," Mr Jammelli told the BBC.

"We called them when it first happened, but they didn't come. No-one came, apart from two guards who did nothing. There were three National Guard boats in the sea. They didn't come until afterwards, when he was killed."

Mr Jammelli - now jobless - is haunted by what he witnessed, and disappointed by the performance of the police.

"They let us down," he said.

"Frankly there are a lot of things that could have been done that were not done. It really hurt us, and it hurt Tunisia."

Image caption,
Mahdi Jammelli, a beach worker who is now jobless, pursued the attacker while guards did nothing

The killer on the beach was one of an estimated 6,000 Tunisians who joined IS in recent years.

The cradle of the Arab Spring is also the biggest provider of foreign fighters. Now the threat is rebounding on Tunisia.

The interior ministry says about 800 jihadis have returned, and are "on the radar of the authorities".

'Better he dies'

A few hours' drive from Sousse, in a village hollowed out by poverty, we met the father of an IS recruit.

The elderly man, who doesn't want to be named, says his son went to fight in Libya in 2014. He won't be welcome if he returns.

"If he comes back, I will kill him myself," the man said.

"Better he dies, than others die. He used to help me. He had just found a job and I was so happy. But the bad guys came and took him. They brainwashed him. Now I have no son."

Could one of the returning jihadis be another Seifeddine Rezgui? No-one knows, but Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi has said they will not all be jailed because "there isn't enough room".

Image caption,
At the Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel, staff are getting ready to re-open in May

Back in Sousse, at Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel, staff are getting ready to re-open in May.

Craftsmen are repairing the elaborate marble flooring. Painters are whitewashing the exterior walls. A metal detector lies waiting in a packing crate, near tables and chairs still wrapped in plastic.

The general manager, Ramzy Kessisa, says those who died here will never be forgotten, but Tunisia is hoping to move on.

"We are getting a new face," Mr Kessisa said, as he watched earthmovers reshape the front garden.

"We say sorry to all the British people and we hope to see them soon. We need them, and they need our sun."

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