How A Tunisian Mountain Became A New Home Base For Al-Qaeda

Tunisian security forces looking for al-Qaeda linked terrorists in Jebel ech Chambi
Tunisian security forces looking for al-Qaeda linked terrorists in Jebel ech Chambi
Isabelle Mandraud

KASSERINE - Sitting on his doorstep, squinting under his straw hat, the shepherd looks closely at the military tank that crosses his land with a deafening rumble.

“For now, we let them, but if it goes on, we, the people, we will revolt and stop this joke by all available means,” says Ridha Messaoudi.

Early on June 11, he and his cousin Tahar had gone to take their sheep to graze at the steps of the Jebel ech Chambi mountain. Then, a goat walked on a mine – Tahar was riddled with shrapnel and had to be transferred to the Tunisian capital, Tunis. He became the first civilian victim of the guerrilla warfare in this western stretch of the country, near the Algerian border that pits the Tunisian army against a group of jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.

“It is not us who are being targeted, it is them,” says Messaoudi while pointing his chin toward the tank. “But, now, no one dares to leave their home anymore, and I don’t have any hay left for my sheep!”

Since April 29, the hunt for the jihadists that had started weeks earlier took another turn with the explosion of several mines, which resulted in 27 victims, all from the army and the National Guard. Among them, three soldiers died and another five had to be amputated.

“They are using anti-personnel mines made out of ammonium nitrate,” a chemical compound that very common in this agricultural zone. “The mines are placed in plastic containers that are very hard to spot,” says Major-Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr, Defense Ministry spokesman. Since then, Mount Chaambi and its national park, created in 1980 in order to bring back the Barbary sheep – a native species of goat-antelope – has turned into a military zone. The mountain is surrounded. On June 16, the population of Kasserine came out to protest and say “no to terrorism.”

In this poor city located approximately 300 kilometers southwest of Tunis, at the foot of the Jebel ech Chambi, which at 1,544 meters high is the highest mountain in the country, anger vies with incomprehension. The trucks, loaded with contraband gasoline cans, continue to travel the roads as if nothing had happened, despite the presence of troops, tanks and daily military helicopter flyovers. The locals say they’ve never seen one of the terrorists or “bearded men” and are increasingly suspicious of the increasingly visible military operations. “The terrorists move around in small groups, we don’t see them, our actions are part of an asymmetrical war that people do not understand,” says Major-Colonel Ben Nasr.

Underground tunnels and caves

A sign of how little they trust the authorities, the families of deceased soldiers refused the military honors they had been awarded. The death of Chief Warrant Officer Mokhtar Mbarki, 43, killed by friendly fire on June 3 during a night operation did not help quell the families’ doubts. “How could all five of his friends mistake him for an enemy combatant? Mokhtar was shot 10 times from a distance of 3.5 meters!” says Mokhtar’s widow, Najet Rtibi, who is pregnant with their fourth child.

“According to phone taps, the terrorists are still on the mountain. It is not a plot, nor a fake scenario, it is the hard reality which is hard to accept for Kasserine’s image,” says Walid Bennani, a member of parliament for the Islamist party Ennahda. Torn between the need to inform the population and the fear of harming Tunisia’s image, the authorities try to minimize what is happening.

On the ground, the army has uncovered found huts, underground tunnels and hideouts in the numerous caves around the mountain containing plans, SIM cards and documents on ammonium nitrate. The group named itself the katiba (“battalion”) Uqba ibn Nafi, after the Arab general who began the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb and founded the cultural city of Kairouan in the 7th century.

The authorities published the portraits of these jihadists. “Out of 35 men, 11 of them are Algerian their goal is to establish a training camp and attract young recruits,” explains police officer Mohamed Ali Aroui, Interior ministry spokesman.

It is not the first time that the mountain, which is known for being difficult to access, is the target of infiltration attempts by jihadists. On May 18, 2011, nearby at the Rouhia command post at the Algerian, four people were killed – two soldiers and two jihadists – after a violent clash. Among them was Abdelwaheb Hmaied, a known operative for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There was another clash at Bir Ali Ben Khelifa, near Sfax, on Feb. 2, 2012, where two jihadists were killed. After that, 25 Kalashnikov were discovered in Kasserine.

The weapons come from Libya, and investigators are certain that the group has close ties with the jihadists in northern Mali. Since then, the violent confrontations continue to multiply.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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