"The Earthquake That Builds": The Impact of Public Hearings in Tunisia


“Tunisia wins. There is no going back.”

That is what Salwa El Gantri, ICTJ’s Head of Office in Tunisia, posted on her Facebook page after the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) held its first public hearings in November, and such was the sentiment throughout much of the country that historic day. Victims had testified publicly for the first time about the abuses they suffered under successive dictatorships. After 60 years of suppression, the truth about this painful past was broadcast on national television and streamed over the Internet by tens of thousands more worldwide. This was a breakthrough.

Now four months after those historic first testimonies, victims continue to shed light on the truth through ongoing public hearings. Their stories have fundamentally altered the dialogue around the past in Tunisia. To mark the International Day for the Right to Truth, ICTJ Director of Communications Refik Hodzic sat down with two women whose work has been critical to the success of the commission – El Gantri and TDC Commissioner Ibtihel Abdellatif – to discuss what they have taken away from public hearings so far.

Refik Hodzic: The expectations from the first public hearings in Tunisia were as polarized as the political landscape – some thought they would bring reconciliation, others that they would destabilize the country. The atmosphere in the society was incredibly charged. What were your expectations, your hopes?

Ibtihel Abdellatif:: I had very high expectations for these public hearings. I really believed that they would have a big impact on our society because Tunisians would be shocked to discover the scale of the atrocities victims endured. Before the first public hearings a journalist asked me what I thought the impact would be. I said public hearings would be like an earthquake, and that’s exactly what happened. Earthquakes change everything. This earthquake did not demolish; it built. It unearthed a treasure and caused major change.

Salwa El Gantri: I hoped that public hearings would finally bring our society the truth we were working to make people see and understand. Because the TDC works in a very hostile political and media environment it was difficult to make those who were never victims, who never had any links to victims, understand victims’ suffering and victims’ rights. The public hearings were about coming to someone who is not able or does not want to see the truth, and putting the truth in front of him. You shake him and you tell him: “Look in front of you, this is what I am speaking to you about!”

Hodzic interviews Abdellatif and El Gantri. (Sam McCann/ICTJ)

Hodzic: And what were the major fears and anxieties as the hearings approached?

Abdellatif: There were fears, of course. Would the media smear some of the victims? How would victims’ families react? Many Tunisian media and many parliamentarians said that the public hearings will cause a crisis in our society, destabilize the country, using very loaded language. Some people said that if victims name their perpetrators, they will be killed. Some of us worried about women testifying, and some have considered hiding their faces and their identities. There were all sorts of fears, including fears for their security.

It was in this sensitive context that we held public hearings. We took the security and dignity of victims as our first responsibility, because we didn’t want to retraumatize victims. We implemented procedures and organized many meetings with experts to make sure victims could testify freely and safely, and that their relationships with their loved ones would remain secure. We also provided psychologists during the hearings to help support victims during public testimony. And of course, after the first hearings, things got easier. We hoped that we were closing the last page of the chapter of the dictatorship and opening a new, democratic one. We worked under great pressure, but we believed in our work.

Salwa El Gantri: My fear was not the impact the negative campaign might have on the population, because deep inside I was somehow convinced that people will finally understand when victims speak. Instead, I was crossing my fingers on the day of the hearings that nothing went wrong to disrupt the proceedings. Because once they started, I knew we were past the point of no return. For those that were living in denial, the public hearings made them face the truth. The sea is blue, whether you want to say that it is red, yellow, or black.

Hodzic: Women’s testimonies were at the heart of what these hearings represented for all Tunisians. Yet, many people were saying: “Well it’s a very conservative society, it’s very difficult for women to come forward, I don’t believe that they will be able to tell the full story.” In that context, what were your concerns specifically when it related to the welfare of women and what they were going to expose in the public hearings?

Abdellatif: Not everything was perfect after the public hearings in this regard. Some male activists wrote on their Facebook that it was shameful that women spoke out about sexual violence in the public hearings. One said that if they were Palestinian or Algerian, they would have been “more proud” and would not have spoken about those experiences publicly. Ultimately, I think they said these things because they were envious that we selected these women to testify instead of them. But these attacks did not deter women. I did a survey of women who submitted testimony to the TDC, and 66% said that they want to participate in the public hearings and would give their testimony without any kind of identity protection. And even those who initially said they did not want their testimony to be public called me after the public hearings to say they changed their mind and want the country to hear what they have to say.

**Watch: Women's testimony**

Hodzic: And what impact did these public testimonies have on the perception of women’s rights in Tunisia?

Abdellatif: The public hearings broke the stereotype, held for over sixty years, that Tunisia is some sort of paradise for women. The truth that the TDC gave the public reveals another image: there might be nominal equality between men and women, but between women and other women, there is not. We have many laws which are the best among Arab countries, but who benefits from these laws? Not all women. Unfortunately, as one of the victims testified back in March 10th, some NGOs were perceived as “too elitist” and not working on equality among women. If you are in opposition to the government, you lose your rights as a citizen. You are not a Tunisian. If you have a special dress, you don’t have these rights.

I think seeing this truth on display at the public hearings shocked many people.

El Gantri: I was in the public hearing on women, and when the last victim, Najet Ichaoui, claimed that now what she wants to see is more solidarity of women with women, I looked to my husband and told him: “Isn’t this true feminism: solidarity of women with women?”

Hodzic: What sort of responses have victims received from their loved ones?

Abdellatif: One victim who testified has a daughter abroad , working at an airline . I saw this girl on television in 2012, speaking alongside her mother. She said that she felt grief for her mother,” I love her, but I feel bitter. Seeing her makes me feel regret about my mother’s fate and I don’t want what has happened to her to reflect on me.” But now, after the public hearings, she’s proud. When her mother testified, the captain and the crew she worked with at the airline threw a big party for her and brought her flowers. She now celebrates her mother’s testimony with her colleagues.

Other victims have similar stories. One of the victims whose testimony truly shocked the nation called on the phone crying tears of joy after the hearing. He said to me, “You reconciled me with my family.” After he was imprisoned and tortured, his family basically asked him to leave, and he felt like a burden. Even before the hearings his brother asked him not to speak publicly. They told him: “The pain you brought to us was enough, please don’t speak.” He was hesitant to testify, but 15 minutes before the hearings, his brother sent him a message saying: “You are free to do what you want.”

So he testified. And he says that he omitted many details, because he didn’t want to hurt his family more. But after he testified, there was a catharsis of some sort in his family, they called him to tell him how proud they were of him and to seek his forgiveness. Now, all his family visits him and his wife. They are reunited. And he is not alone. I have many messages from men and women, and the first thing they say is that “you achieved our dreams of reconciliation between me and my family.” Many of them were rejected by their families for years, their families said they were ashamed of them. But now they are a source of pride.

Hodzic: So, you would say the hearings were a success for the TDC?

Abdellatif: My big hope for the hearings was uniting society around one idea: dignity. How do you unite a society divided by ideologies, by political parties, by media?

Before the public hearing some people warned against victims naming their perpetrators for fears of retribution. But in reality, in cases when victims did do exactly that, many of the perpetrators came to the TDC the next day to ask for forgiveness. Others phoned the victims directly. And very importantly, I’m happy to see that many police officers, even those who weren’t the responsible of abuses, they called and they went to victims’ houses to ask for their forgiveness in the name of all the police.

El Gantri: It has been a success. After the first day of hearings, I posted on Facebook: “Tunisia wins. There is no going back.” The public hearings were so crucial because in the tumult after the revolution, everything that was once up is now down. We have a new constitution, people in the streets, everything changed in a very short period. So, I think people needed to come together and hear each other.

To this day, I do not know anyone, of any political ideology, who rejected the story of any victim. They just needed to understand the story from the beginning to the end beyond the media or the political parties because their discourse has enormous influence, unfortunately a negative one.

Because of this often-negative influence, not everyone understood the role of the TDC. That it was not an instrument of revenge. What it did was bring political ideologies in the open and create dialogue. We have people use pejorative names for Islamists, or those declaring themselves as communists marginalized from any discussion. But during the hearings, a man spoke whose brother was killed under torture for being a communist. In a way, he confronted the entire nation when he said: “Yes, he was communist and we are communists and what’s the problem in being communist?” We had Islamists testifying. We had communists testifying. We had liberals testifying. The point is: your ideology should not undermine your access to rights. Giving voice to this message was a victory for the public hearings.

Abdellatif: I agree. The public hearings shed precious light on the necessity to discuss ideological differences openly. Victims came forward and said, “We want to speak with you, to have dialogue, but do not torture me. You can accept me and I accept you, and we can live together.”

Hearing this had a substantial impact. For example, some celebrities with huge following who said something ironic [or dismissive] about some of the victims who testified at the public hearings, are losing much of their fans as a result. It’s a total shift in mentality: you cannot stand against the waves, and now there is a wave of support for victims. If you try to hurt them or attack them, you will be isolated in this society.

Hodzic: What impact do you believe television and internet coverage has had on the public hearings?

Abdellatif: I think the work of a truth commission is easier than it has been in the past. The information and the testimony is directly broadcast to the population, which is what we need. The participation of television networks, especially national TV, is essential. We get so many comments saying: “Are we dreaming? We cannot imagine that the national TV that used to broadcast only one voice, the voice of the state, the voice of the propaganda of the dictatorship, is now broadcasting women talking about what the regime did to them.”

This freedom is important for us, especially considering that the TDC itself is part of the state. We are representing the state – we are not an independent party, a political party. We are an independent institution that is part of the state, that receives a budget from parliament. It is important to see the state criticized by a state institution.

Broadcasting on national TV and streaming over the internet overturned many prejudices like, for example, that these victims only want compensation, want money. In fact, what you see on the broadcasts is that they want truth. They say: “I want you to hear me, I don’t need anything from you. All the money of the world cannot compensate me.” This also shocked population and made people realize that truth is precious, very precious for these victims and for society.

The second prejudice was the revenge, that victims want revenge. Many saw the TDC as an instrument of revenge. But during the public hearings, they saw victims’ vision for the future was centered on forgiveness. And this was not for victims’ benefit: this was their gift to society. This was perpetrators’ opportunity to reconcile – not only with victims but with society at large, with their children, with their families.

El Gantri: In Tunisia, there’s a perception that the public discussion about politics or human rights is reserved for the elite. But the public hearings allowed us to hear stories of people who come from marginalized backgrounds. They don’t need to have a master’s degree or a PhD in this or that field to speak – they know well what happened to them and how they see their country. And the internet and TV broadcasts gave them the platform for the first time.

Hodzic: Every state, every society, especially those in transition, needs a strong narrative around which it builds its identity. How would you say the public hearings have changed the way the country sees itself?

Abdellatif: I think that the best example of this shift in how we see ourselves is what public hearings did to generate empathy for those who for different reasons end up in jail, even if they are thieves or common criminals. Because, many people understand now what happened in jails during the dictatorship. We now see even parliamentarians reluctant to enact laws with draconian punishment, because they know our prison system is not reformed. There is no dignity. This became clear in the public hearings. The public hearings also encouraged many students in history, in sociology, to work on our history. To research and to rewrite the history. They will not accept the reality that they were served. They will not accept the dogma. This is the earthquake that builds.

El Gantri: I think one of the positive impacts of the public hearings is the perception that is starting to take hold about the state policy in fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, the policy apparatus did not undertake any institutional reform. And after the terrorist attacks of 2015 we witnessed many human rights violations, especially torture, committed against those suspected of being in some way involved, some more horrible than what happened under the dictatorship. Many people were subjected to this for simply praying at a certain mosque. And public hearings raised the kind of awareness in people that repression always leads to a cycle of violence, it leads to an explosion that we don’t need in this society. If you allow people to exercise their religion freely, they will not seek refuge in extremism. Those who peddle misconception or misunderstandings of Islam will not find fertile ground if people are allowed freedom. And this is crucial for any hope of successfully combating extremism in Tunisia.

Hodzic: Is there a moment from these public hearings that lives with you? A moment that will stay with you your entire life?

Abdellatif: There are many for me, of course. But maybe because the first public hearings had such a big impact on me, the last sentences of Sami Brahem’s testimony lingers. He said that the dictatorship sought to sterilize everything. Sterility not only of the body, but of the heart, of the mind, of the soul. They wanted to stop his generation as if it was a virus, he said.

But they failed. He now has a beautiful girl. He continued in his studies and was at the top of his class. This is a message of hope. Listening to his story, it was as if I was watching someone stand up from his grave. This is the image: that the dictatorship failed. You can jail him, you can torture him, but you cannot break the energy that God made in him, this soul.

These people who are buried and rise again, these people for me are the lasting image. If you ask me what justice means to me, I will say it means these people.

**Watch: Sami Brahem's Testimony**

El Gantri: One moment truly shook me when I heard it in one of the public hearings. It was the testimony of Mahrzia Bel Abed, as she was speaking about her torture in the Ministry of the Interior. She told a story about one of these many nights during which she was tortured, and how after they finished her torture and were bringing her back to her cell, two police officers were talking to each other. The first one asked the second: “Is she done?” The second said yes, the torture was over, and the first replied, “Alhamdullelah Aliha.” Thanks be to God.

That phrase stays with me. “Thank God she made it?” These are perpetrators speaking. And to me, it shows that we must focus more on how people who are under orders can lose so much of their humanity, but even in these instances there is a little humanity remaining that we can wake up, that we can reform, that we can make see the truth.

**Watch: Mahrzia Bel Abed's Testimony**

Hodzic: This little light shows that there is a way

El Gantri: There is a way, we just need to figure out how to correctly work on it. It shows that this is not a project of rejecting people. This is a process to bring people back to the right way so we can coexist peacefully and accept each other as we are in all our differences and faults.

PHOTOS: Scenes from the public hearings (TDC).