For the Poor, Tunisia’s Infrastructure can be Deadly

Seif Koussani of Nawaat took this photo on October 23, 2020. It shows the manhole Farah fell into and died on October 4, which was open then but had since been covered with cement. The sewage channel nearby--open in the photograph--has since been covered. Photo courtesy of Nawaat.

On Monday, November 23, a 21-year old woman died after falling into a stormwater drainage channel in the industrial area of Enfidha in the governorate of Sousse. Her death marks the second time in less than two months that dangerous infrastructure has taken the life of a young person.

On October 4, 2020, a nine-year old girl named Farah fell into a manhole in Bhar Lazreg, a poor neighborhood in the otherwise extremely wealthy municipality of La Marsa. The channel had been covered only with flimsy wooden boards which collapsed when the girl walked over them, according to eyewitnesses from the neighborhood who spoke to Meshkal/Nawaat. Two days later on October 6, the Search and Rescue Teams of the Regional Department of Civil Protection in Tunis retrieved the child’s corpse, according to a statement posted on the Civil Protection’s official Facebook page by spokesperson Moez Tereia.

The case drew significant public attention via social media and prompted outrage over the unequal distribution of municipal services and infrastructure spending in one of the richest municipalities in Tunisia. According to an official document online, La Marsa had a budget of almost 13 million Tunisian dinars (TND) in 2019, but a local municipal council member told Meshkal/Nawaat that the budget was about 30 million TND.

The case of deadly infrastructure is not new. Every winter when the rains arrive in Tunisia, poor infrastructure leads to deadly flooding, especially in poorer neighborhoods of cities and in towns in the northwest with high precipitation.

For Farah’s mother Salha and a lawyer volunteering to represent their case, responsibility for Farah’s death falls on municipal officials who neglected the hazardous, unfinished infrastructure—for at least six years according to local residents. A few days after Farah’s death made national headlines, the manhole was covered with cement by volunteers, locals said.

On the other side, some officials have blamed the mother for not watching the girl closely enough.

Blaming and Harming the Victim’s Impoverished Mother

On the day Farah fell and died, she was accompanying her mother Salha, who was gathering discarded plastic bottles to exchange for money.

Speaking at her home more than two weeks after the death of her daughter, Salha recounted the moment she lost Farah.

“It is their fault for keeping the manhole open… when she fell, the wooden board split in two. Her cat fell with her; that’s how I realized that she fell in there because I heard her cat’s scream,” Salha said, adding she was still in disbelief.

The mayor and head of municipal council of La Marsa, Moez Bouraoui, appeared to blame Salha for her daughter’s death. In an interview with Mosaique FM on October 5, Bouraoui said that “manholes are part of ONAS’s jurisdiction not ours…It seems that the mother lost focus on her daughter.”

Bouraoui added in the interview that he had personally been in the area of the open manhole two or three weeks before Farah’s death and he didn’t notice an uncovered manhole.

After initially agreeing to talk to Meshkal/Nawaat, Bouraoui later refused to give a direct statement, claiming that “other members of the municipal council should be more aware of the details and legal proceedings of this painful accident”.

The mayor’s earlier statements appear to have had some effect in drawing media attention to Salha’s alleged negligence. Some asked why Salha brought Farah to accompany her mother. Child Protection General Delegate Mehyar Hammadi also appeared to blame Salha for her daughter’s death. In a statement to the state news agency TAP, Hammadi said that “the death of the little girl Farah … is a tragic accident and the responsibility falls on the parents who practice a form of economic exploitation of their children by encouraging them to engage in risky work.”

Salha’s pro bono lawyer Sonia Chaouech acknowledged that in the past Salha’s poverty had obliged her to send her daughter to state run foster care facilities on a temporary basis during weekdays to provide Farah adequate care but did not characterize this as negligence.

“The whole neighborhood here survives off plastic bottles sales. I would be lucky to make two dinars a day,” Salha, Farah’s mother told Meshkal/Nawaat.

“People keep accusing me of being negligent and how I’m sending my daughter to collect plastic bottles…I am used to working every job to provide for her everything and not keep her in need,” Salha told Meshkal/Nawaat. “She goes to school, but that day I took her with me because this neighborhood is not safe for a girl her age; I can’t leave her by herself at the house.”

Salha, Farah, and Farah’s brother were recent arrivals to Bhar Lazreg and the capital, having moved from El Kef only three months prior to Farah’s death. Salha said that she used to always take Farah with her, even when they were in El Kef, but had increasingly kept Farah by her side in their neighborhood in Bhar Lazreg because she worried the area is unsafe. She said it would have been risky to leave a girl of her age alone at home with “the kind of merciless men they have living there.”

“If I kept her by herself at home I’m the negligent one, and if I take her with me, I am also considered negligent,” Salha told Meshkal/Nawaat. “I tried to protect her taking her with me, but, as you see, what I feared happened to her even when she was with me,” she said.

Salha said she had been invited to recount her story on the popular TV show “Les Quatre Vérités” with news anchor Hamza Belloumi on the Hiwar Ettounsi channel. However, she said they ended up not having her on and instead only interviewed Abdelmajid Bettaeib, Director General of the National Sanitation Office (ONAS). The program aired  on October 12.

“The mayor keeps saying it’s not his mistake, ONAS say it’s not their responsibility, then whose responsibility is it?” Salha said.

Salha also claimed other media outlets have edited her interviews in ways that she believes make her look bad. She’s also been the victim of people trying to take advantage of her situation. Salha said some individuals pretending to know her used her case to raise funds online, which they pocketed.

More alarmingly, Salha said she was the victim of an attempted kidnapping on the second day after Farah’s death. In her mourning, she said someone tried to take advantage of her emotional state by coming to her house with a van to kidnap her in order to steal from her what money they assumed she had received following national media attention to her case.

Municipality’s “Moral” or “Legal” Responsibility?

While the mayor has deflected blame to the mother, not all members of the mayor’s council are certain that officials hold no responsibility for Farah’s death.

Speaking to Meshkal/Nawaat, Ayoub Belhaj, a municipal council member in La Marsa distinguished between what he saw as the municipality’s “moral” responsibility, and “legal” responsibility.

“All officials bear the moral responsibility in what happened to Farah,” Belhaj said.

However, Belhaj insisted that the municipality had no legal responsibility for Farah’s death.

“Legally speaking, the municipality does not assume any legal responsibility in this case since it is known that the ONAS infrastructure is exclusively theirs and no other party has the jurisdiction to intervene in it or even fix it when it’s ruined,” Belhaj said.

Belhaj clarified that while the municipality is “capable of solving the issue of manholes since it probably possesses more logistics than any other governmental entities,” municipalities lack jurisdiction over ONAS, which is run by the central government.

Salha, Farah’s mother, said she watched the TV interview with ONAS director Bettaieb when he explained that many manholes were kept open to ventilate them from deadly gases before Civil Protection units entered them, though he did not explain the circumstances of them entering manholes or whether there was a specific operation they were working on that day.

“He keeps talking of how the manholes need to remain open for ventilation… I can’t believe he said that. If he said that to my face, I don’t know how I would have reacted,” Salha told Meshkal/Nawaat.

One of the many lawyers volunteering to help Salha, Sonia Chaouech, is skeptical that the municipality holds no legal responsibility for Farah’s death.

“If the municipality does not assume the responsibility of events taking place within its territorial grounds, and if it does not have the power to manage public property as it should, then what is it doing exactly?” Chaouech told Meshkal/Nawaat.

As for arguments about jurisdiction, Chaouech believes those are irrelevant to the case and the state should bring charges against the municipality.

“Before speaking of the local affairs code, there is a penal code in Tunisia that identifies the repercussions of deaths caused by tort liability and negligence. Today, we try doctors who make lethal mistakes based on that, so how can we say we can’t try officials because of the local affairs code?” Chaouech said.

Building a Legal Case

Salha said she’s upset that no prosecutions have been brought, and she hadn’t even received an official autopsy for her child’s death when Meshkal/Nawaat spoke to her.

Her lawyer, Chaouech, told Meshkal/Nawaat that she had checked in on the official police investigation into Farah’s death in early November. She said the police told her the autopsy was not ready yet due to delays relating to Covid-19. Chaouech was surprised to find the police had not questioned the municipality, and had only sent one request to ONAS for a statement on the incident.

According to Chaouech, police asked her: “What does it [the municipality] have to do with this case?”

Chaouech said she made her case to police, and, after some debate, they finally decided to send the municipality an official convocation to give an official statement as part of the investigation.

“The legal case, it is being slept on in La Marsa District Regional Police Division and the suspicious death proceedings is still in the state attorney’s office,” Chaouech said.

Residents Blame Officials for Dangerous Infrastructure

Tarek, a resident of the area who asked that his real name not be used, told Meshkal/Nawaat that residents have regularly filed complaints about exposed manholes, demanding that officials take steps to properly cover them, but that these demands were consistently ignored. On the day Meshkal/Nawaat went to visit the site of Farah’s death on October 23, the manhole had been covered with cement, which locals said was done by volunteers and not officials.

Tarek did not specify whether complaints about the manhole Farah fell into had been lodged with the municipality or with ONAS. Council member Belhaj said that the municipality had not received any complaints regarding the status of the manhole where Farah fell and died, a claim previously made as well by mayor Bouraoui in his interview with Mosaique FM.

But locals still expressed anger at the municipality for not treating services in Bhar Lazreg with as much care as in richer parts of La Marsa.

“The municipality only cares about areas such as La Marsa beach or La Marsa downtown. Do you know why? That’s because it’s where Minister X lives and Businessman Y lives. But when it comes to poor [zaweli] people like us, who live day-to-day, they don’t care about us… Things are only getting worse,” Tarek said. “They only pay attention when a disaster happens, if no disaster happens…no one would pay attention to you.”

Emna another resident of the neighborhood who runs a small shop there and asked that her real name not be used, told Meshkal/Nawaat that “if the Farah incident didn’t happen, nothing would have probably been fixed and all of the manholes would have remained exposed in that way.”

“When it rains in winter, people can’t cross the road to go to school or work…people have to wear flip-flops and pull up their trousers to be able to cross the street,” Emna added, explaining that bad drainage infrastructure means small amounts of rain quickly turn into floods.

For Emna, it’s no surprise that Farah fell into the channel by mistake. Although it wasn’t raining the day Farah fell in, weather conditions could have easily made the open channel hard to notice.

“I was once going out to a café and I had to take off my shoes to cross the road. Can you imagine what would have happened if at that moment one of the manholes were open? How can one notice it in a similar circumstance?” Emna added.

Poor road infrastructure isn’t the only grievance locals have against the municipality. According to Emna, trash is rarely picked up from the neighborhood’s dumps and the smells coming out of the exposed sewage channels are a source of misery. Both the dumps and the sewage also attract many rats and insects.

“We are paying taxes in vain… usually the municipality should come to pick up trash every day at 9 a.m. [but] we have no such thing. We need to go very far away from where we live to a deserted area [known locally as ‘Zeitoun’] to throw away our trash.”

Tarek said that whenever a manhole becomes blocked, residents file complaints one person at a time to the National Sanitation Office (ONAS), but they would never send a team to fix it.

“They’ll only come to fix the manhole [blockage] when you give them 100 Dinars [bribe]…they’ll even fix the channel up to your house,” Tarek said. “If you do not do that, you should forget about it and they’ll just say that nothing is wrong with [the drainage channel].”

Both Tarek and Emna told Meshkal/Nawaat that they have lost hope in any potential change and that is why they stopped trying to reach out to any official parties to fix their infrastructure.

“I’ve been living for 30 years in this neighborhood and nothing has changed…We’re just living waiting to die, that is it,” added Tarek.

“Officials accuse us of stealing the covers of these manholes, but that’s not what happens. People here remove those covers from privileged neighborhoods, because they [resident of wealthy neighborhoods] could get it fixed by only one call. We then bring those covers to place on the exposed channels that we have here,” Tarek said.

Official Acknowledges Government Shortcomings

For council member Belhaj, Bhar Lazreg’s status is less linked with its treatment by the La Marsa council as it is with the exodus of people from rural areas, like Salha and Farah from El Kef, to concentrated urban slums.

“Bhar Lazreg area used to have 10,000 residents, but within 10 years, the number jumped to 60,000. We should ask the question why these exodus movements are taking place in the first place,” Belhaj said.

Belhaj sympathized with the residents of Bhar Lazreg and acknowledged their particular plight, having himself spent his whole life living in one of Marsa’s poorer neighborhoods.

“Bhar Lazreg represents the margin of La Marsa. People there live off collecting plastic, selling drugs, cleaning jobs, selling used clothes etc.” Belhaj said.

“Realistically, when you hear that the La Marsa municipality budget amounts to 30 million Tunisian dinars and then you witness the status of roads in Bhar Lazreg for instance, that pushes you to ask many questions. However, what I personally witnessed there is no corruption in the municipality; instead there are many debts and many charges that they have to bear,” Belhaj added.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.