They were Not the Enemy by Wassim Najjar, Tunisia

It was a relatively hot day for a winter; everything was calm as usual, the city sinking into its routine. He was seventeen at that time. He had heard rumors from friends in other districts, the media did not podcast a thing about the issue, but I felt it coming, tension was in the air it was just waiting for a sparkle.

As a teenager discovering the surrounding world, he had that deep hate for the system and its strict hand: the police forces. He considered himself a rebel, and hated this place and everything related to it. He had all the right to hate this city. It was always calm, a coastal city on the north east side of the country, the city of Nabeul, a favorite destination for tourists and retired people. A very boring place especially during the cold seasons. Definitely not the right place for an energetic young man like him; not during the winter.

It was in January 2011, he had been hearing rumors from late December 2010: the people were rising against the dictatorship in the south, standing up against the regime, protesting and marching for freedom. There were encounters with the police everywhere but Nabeul.

He had received a phone call from a friend, telling him that people are marching in the main city streets. He put his jacket on and went to join them there. It was great to feel more powerful than the system, to feel that he’s doing something to end the tyranny, although it could end his life.

It was a peaceful march of course, the police did not intervene, they were watching the protesters and guarding some government institutions. He had seen them, these cruel policemen, ready with their vehicles, black tight costumes and big guns, grenade launchers on their backs, with their black leather boots can surely help them outrun the people if they wanted to but they just stood there.

During the march, some people with covered faces and backpacks joined in. They were suspicious but nobody cared much, people were shouting their slogans, lifting signs, it did not matter who was there or how they were dressed as long as they were united and in big numbers.

The first glass smashing sound came in like thunderbolt, people were silent suddenly, some wondering what just has happened. It was these anonymous people. They opened their backpacks which were full of big rocks and started throwing them towards a nearby supermarket and local bank and then targeted the officers who obviously had to intervene. They started to advance; people throwing rocks were behind the protesters who were right in the middle of it, used as human shields.

It was a total chaos, people were running  inside the supermarket and the nearby bank looking for something valuable to loot, the rest who refused to steal were hammered by gas bombs launched from the police’s grenade launchers. He will never forget that scene of the shielded policeman getting on one knee and aiming towards him, a lot of people were injured, many were arrested, but he was able to notice in that chaos that these face-covered strangers who started it were never caught, after successfully breaking into the supermarket, they burned the first floor of the building and then retreated without stealing anything despite all the computers and TV’s in front of them. They just withdrew. It did not end till the army forces came between the clashing parties, people considered it a win, he didn’t. The cause was lost; people have forgotten why they protested and were happy with their new stolen TV’s.

He managed to escape that scene and go back home safe that day, but did not go outside to protest again, only the people with the intention of stealing were out, they’ve seen how it was done and greed got the best of them. For a week there were apocalyptic scenes, theft and scavenging and looting at night and food storing by frightened people by day, and the news saying that they were criminals not peaceful protesters. It was frustrating for him to see how their hopes were crushed, their dreams were stolen by the thieves who took advantage of them and ruined the popular rise for them for their unethical material profiting.

His enthusiasm became coldness. He didn’t care much about what was going to happen. He just lost faith in his people and their willingness to improve their lives. Not one of the people out there was thinking of the long term investment in democracy and freedom. He just wanted this to end, if you can’t make things better just don’t make them worse.

He was seeing the police officers as the enemy of freedom, the strict hand of a fascist regime. Everything has changed since that day. He stopped looking from one little corner of his, this experience opened his mind and his eyes. He had seen his city destroyed, people hurt and property burnt down. He saw them now protecting the people and their city. As peaceful protesters, they were used by organized criminal gangs and we were in wrong place in the wrong time; he had for the first time of his life a little bit of understanding for the policemen. They were used just like them, used by the government, they’re Tunisians just like the rest of them, they were his neighbors, relatives of some of his friends, they were there they cannot deny their existence and their importance in their lives. They work for long daily shifts facing death every day. They were living a much worse life than the other citizens under that regime.

It was the popular opinion. The post-revolution government gave them rights equal to the rest of the citizens and raised their salary and healed the injured for free after the revolution as a gesture of appreciation of the important job they’re doing.

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