PARIS - If the images didn't show a large scar on Ghazi Béji's chest, the photo collection of his journey might pass for a mere holiday album.
Yet the 28-year-old Tunisian has a very different tale to tell: in seven months, Béji traveled across seven countries in hiding, facing hunger, fear, cold and physical violence. His is the roving journey of a convicted blasphemer facing a seven-and-a-half-year jail sentence for publishing online caricatures and pamphlets depicting the prophet Muhammad.
Ghazi Béji, it must be said, had never before left his native Tunisia.
This proud atheist has now found shelter in Paris where he ended up in late September, and has received support from several human right organizations. An international commitee was launched to defend his cause that includes the likes of famous French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, publisher Antoine Gallimard, writers Patrick Chamoiseau, Abdelwahab Meddeb and Patrick Deville.
His French defenders are helping him in the name of "the right to freedom of conscience granted by the 18th article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations." In more immediate terms, they are protecting him from death threats.
Béji, as such, is the first applicant for the status of political refugee in the brief history of "post-revolution Tunisia." But how can we grant political exile status to someone from a country which just freed itself from dictatorship?
Seven months earlier, on March 8, this employee from a pasta factory in his native town of Mahdia, who earned a two-year degree in food-processing studies, took to the road with all his savings: just 1,000 euros. His friend and accomplice Jabeur El-Mejri had just been busted by the police and sent to jail. Not a single lawyer offered to help. Bochra Belhajd Hmida finally took care of Béji's defense after he fled. "As a matter of principle," said the lawyer, well-known in Tunis for her political activism.
The complaint was actually lodged by two lawyers after El-Mejri and Béji published their caricatures of the prophet on the Internet. Béji's The Illusion of Islam, a pamphlet in Arabic which has not been translated, was not short on provocation, accusing Muhammad of being a pedophile. A Tunisian court gave the two men the same sentence. It did not take long for the death threats to start pouring in.
Béji would obviously not have done what he did under the old regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. But after the fall of the dictator, and having taken part in the January 2011 demonstrations, Béji believed that everything was possible in the "new Tunisia."
Panic sets in
"Most Muslims don't know anything about their own religion," he says in the Parisian apartment where he has found shelter. "For me, every problem faced by Arab countries is due to religion. Why are all these countries so poor while other ones are so rich? The problem is Islam."
Naive and reckless, he said he'd even went as far as taking his pamphlet to the Tunisian Ministry of Interior for a printing permit, which was quickly denied.
On March 8, struck by panic, Béji caught a louage (a shared taxi) and crossed the Tunisia-Libya border. In Tripoli, caught in the middle of the war, he quickly realized that he was not in the right place. He turned back, crossed the border again and then headed to Algeria.
He first stopped in the border city of Tebessa and then took the bus to Algiers. "This is not the right place for me," he thought as he saw men wearing kamis and long beards. He then headed off to Istanbul, Turkey, by plane. But there too, it did not feel right: "Another muslim country..."
Until then, he had never needed a visa. But he finally decided to head to Europe through Greece, across the Evros River, a now well-known crossing spot for illegal migrants.
"It was 4:30 a.m., the water was cold, but the crossing is not that wide," he recalls. He took his clothes off and put all his belongings in a bag. Halfway through the crossing, he got caught by the flow of the river and lost everything: his glasses, his bag, his camera. "When I made it to the other side, I was naked."
A few kilometers into Greece, the police handed him a temporary permit. When people ask him where he found new clothes, he answers with a half-smile: "A lot of people die on this part of the river. I found them on a dead body."
This marks another new beginning of his incredible journey, during which he faced the hardships shared by so many illegal migrants, filled with the fear of being sent back to his native country.
Béji does not mention all this as he focuses on showing his journey on a map with a puzzling detachment. He only loses his calm when mentioning these "bearded men" he refers to as "terrorists."
"When somebody has faced serious traumas and has flirted several times with death, then detachment acts as a sort of defense," notes psychanalyst Fethi Benslama, a member of his support committee.
Many see his generation of young and daring Tunisians who were not scared to bring down Ben Ali. Béji brought provocation to a new level -- he used to talk out loud about emigrating to Israel when he was still living in Mahdia.
A black forest
Back to recounting his journey, Béji tells of the support he got via Western Union money transfers from his family and his friends back home. There was also the night spent in an abandoned house where he got into a fight "with a group of Algerians who tried to steal his money." He would make it to Thessaloniki, and eventually to Athens. In the Greek capital, he met an Algerian who offered him shelter for two nights. After that, he slept in public parks.
Then began a tour of Western embassies. They all refused his pleas for entry except the French embassy which gave him a temporary entry, but with a warning: after 30 days in the country, he would risk a six-month jail sentence for illegal stay.
On April 21, he crossed into Macedonia through a forest at night. There he met eight North African illegal migrants who decided to follow him. "The Macedonian police arrested me and beat me up. I spent seven hours in jail, and then they released me back on the Greek side, in the forest," he says. "I waited for another night, drank water from a stream and crossed into Macedonia again the next day."
A local shop owner turned him in to the police, who once again arrested him and released him in the forest. He gave it another try the next day, hid underneath a bridge and managed to reach the capital city of Skopje by bus. He did not stay long there. He walked towards Serbia and crossed the border. "It was hard, I would hide everytime I heard a patrol drove by."
In the first town he reached – he has forgotten the name but recalls the posters of Slobodan Milosevic on the walls – he got caught by the police and sent to a detention camp. It came as a shock. "There was a lot of people, Pakistanis, Afghans, Africans," he recalls. "One morning, policemen lined us up against a wall and one of them got his picture taken showing off his muscles in front of us. Then they loaded us like cattle into a bus and sent us back across the border."
Once they got off the bus, Béji says, a policeman made them lay on the ground with their hands behind their necks -- then hit them with their truncheons. "I was exhausted, I was sick."
From there he would take a bus to Belgrade, and eventually crossed into Romania, where he wound up in a refugee camp in Timisoara. The migrants were "split into two groups," he says. "One group could eat while the other one was watching. The first group was made of Syrians, Irakis helped by a US organization. The other one was made of Africans, mostly from Algeria and Asians..."
His situation would eventually grow more precarious as other refugees discovered his identity and his background after a few naive phone calls he gave to some relatives or journalists. "There was a mosque inside the camp and every day, refugees discussed the best way to kill me. They would not call me by my name. The called me "the pig" instead. They beat me up and forced me to eat my socks."
One night, Issam, a Palestinian refugee, bit Béji on the chest, which started bleeding heavily. At this point, the camp management decided to release him. He signed documents – and bought a grey passport (a temporary travel passport) from the Romanian authorities. It ran until "August 2014." He paid an extra 60 euros for a resident card.
For two months, Béji hid in a small studio provided by local priest in Radauti. The priest advised him to pray. From there, he managed to reach Paris by way of Hungary, Austria and Switzerland, thanks to a network of aid organizations.
He is now waiting in hiding, in the unmarked apartment of a Paris activist.