Conflict & Justice

Remembering Tunisia's 'martyr'

By Megan Williams

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Inside a dark hallway off a small courtyard in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, Mannoubia Bouazizi sits and cries, remembering her son, Mohamed.

Mohamed never harmed a soul, she said. He never even spent a night away from home. He's still so dear to my heart and I miss him.

Mohamed's stepfather reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out Mohamed's cell phone, which buzzes slightly. The plastic casing is blistered from the heat of the flames that engulfed Mohamed.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old who never finished high school. He sold fruit, because he couldn't find another job.

In December of last year, Bouazizi set himself on fire after a town official slapped and spit at him, and then pushed over his fruit cart and seized his scales. Mohamed didn't have a permit to sell on the street, and he refused to pay a bribe.

Bouazizi's act of anger and despair led to a revolution in Tunisia. His death prompted protests that ultimately toppled the long-time dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and inspired demonstrations across northern Africa and the Middle East.
Family suffering

But Mannoubia Bouazizi and her family's suffering isn't just from Mohamed's death. They say they now feel isolated from their community.

"I lost my son," said Mannoubia Bouazizi, "and people begin spreading rumors about us; about how I'm earning money off his death, how I'm in the newspapers, how I'm receiving thousands of dollars from the government, and how journalists who come to visit are paying us."

Mannoubia conceded the military did give her $15,000 in compensation for her son's death, but she said she's never been paid for any interview.

In the next room, Mohamed's little brothers are glued to a computer screen, playing a virtual soccer game. The computer was a gift from a local Internet company, an item the Bouazizi family could never afford themselves. That gift and the government cash payment are part of what's prompted the envy of some neighbours.
The hero

Mohamed's 16-year-old sister and his brothers show off their favorite online images – political caricatures of Arab dictators and images of their brother, now a hero, his face photo-shopped onto Tunisian money and made into Obama Hope posters.

A few doors from the Bouazizi home, 26-year-old Neged Gharbi talks about his old friend, Mohamed. They grew up together. Gharbi said it's true that neighbors are now jealous of the Bouazizi family, and not just because of the money.

Gharbi said he's heard people say that Mohamed didn't really start the revolution, and that he set himself on fire not as a political act, but because he was emotionally unbalanced.

Gharbi added that Mohamed may have been fragile, but he was generous, with an open heart.

That's how Mohamed's young cousins remember him. 15-year-old Fathi Bouazizi said for the kids in the family, things will never be the same.

"After what happened, there's no more future for us," said Fathi. "I'm happy about the revolution, but when I think about Mohamed, that happiness slips away from me"

Fathi's older cousin Alaa added, "It's an incomplete happiness."