Madrasa of horrors shocks Tunisia into realising it faces a problem

Hidden-camera footage showed the school housed children and adults in inappropriate conditions.
Sunday 10/02/2019
A 2017 file picture shows a Tunisian child attending an event at the headquartersn of the radical Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir.   (AFP)
Targeting children’s minds. A 2017 file picture shows a Tunisian child attending an event at the headquartersn of the radical Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir. (AFP)

TUNIS - What seemed like an extremist-style madrasa in central Tunisia was closed after it was suspected of subjecting children to mistreatment, sexual abuse and extremist indoctrination.

The government, political parties and the public expressed shock when learning of the alleged horrors taking place at the self-professed Quranic school through a report by an independent Tunisian television channel.

Hidden-camera footage broadcast by El Hiwar Ettounsi television showed the school, near the village of Regueb in rural Sidi Bouzid province, housed children and adults in inappropriate conditions.

It was not clear what the school was teaching but there was suspicion the students were exposed to a radicalisation process.

It was later disclosed that nine students had been sexually abused at the school and that dozens of children were forced to work at construction and farm sites and kept in grossly unsanitary conditions as part of survivalist training. Some of the children were said to have contracted disease or infestation, including scabies and lice.

Mehiar Hammadi, the government’s official in charge of child protection, told a parliamentary committee that the children suffered “many abuses” and had been deprived of an ordinary childhood.

“They have blisters on their feet soles from beatings. They have been also forced to do heavy farming work,” Hammadi said.

The government fired the governor of Sidi Bouzid province and another local official. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed vowed to prosecute the school’s owner and others responsible for the abuses.

“Tunisia is a civil state. It does not accept the brainwashing of children or their exploitation in any form,” Chahed said after visiting the children, who had been transferred to a shelter near Tunis.

Psychologists and educators at the shelter provided medical and psychological assistance for the children, who said they had been taught to avoid material pleasure and undergo hardship training to prepare for the “hard time,” which was understood to mean jihad.

“They are all famished. They pounced on the food as if they had never eaten,” said Lilia Bouguira, a doctor who visited the children.

Bouguira said the students told her: “They gave us rotten food filled with earthworms to prepare us for ‘the hard time,’ as the sheikh told us.”

The “sheikh” is the owner of the school whose house next to the school reportedly had luxuries rare in Regueb, including a swimming pool, internet access and other modern technology.

“Making calluses hardens the heart” is part of the narrative repeated by radical Islamist leaders and preachers as they prepare young followers for so-called holy wars.

Many Tunisians said what surprised them most was the reaction of the children’s parents, who urged authorities to return them to the madrasa, claiming the “government has kidnapped our children.”

Female relatives of the children, protesting separately from male relatives, held a sign reading: “Only good comes from learning the Quran.”

The children’s relatives complained that the school’s saga showed that Muslims in Tunisia are becoming a minority.

The issue released bottled-up anger of many Tunisians, political parties and liberal elites against Islamists and attempts at radicalisation in society.

One particular issue for concern was the uncertainty whether there were other similar schools in Tunisia. MP Sahbi Ben Fredj, whose bloc backs the Chahed government, said after meeting with the children: “Senior officials told me that dozens of schools similar to Regueb’s exist across Tunisia in working-class and wealthy areas in many cities.”

He asked: “Why did local authorities, whether they are government representatives, heads of police and national guards and intelligence officials, look the other way when those responsible for Regueb’s school were recruiting and brainwashing children from almost all the regions of the country?”

“That school was a real terrorist training centre: brainwashing, isolation from society, family and education system environments, paramilitary training and ideological radicalisation. Why didn’t the authorities react during all this time?”

He and other deputies said the state might be too late to save children under the sway of radical Islam in Tunisia.

MP Houda Slim said she asked one of the children why they were in bare feet and the boy answered: “Only a few days remain before we climb the mountains.”

“Mountains” is a term for jihad among radical Islamists in Tunisia. Jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic affiliates, have been active in the mountains and rugged areas in north-western Tunisia.

Political analyst Zied Krichen said the main question the case brought up was: “Is the Regueb school an isolated case or are we in the presence of dozens or perhaps hundreds of such schools spreading jihadist Salafism?”

“In Tunisia, we have yet to draw a line between religious conservatism at the root of political Islam on the one hand and radical Islam that leads to violence and terrorism on the other,” he said.

“We have not succeeded in thinking out how to seriously fight extremism, not only on the security level but in the social, cultural and ideological aspects, especially when we see that our children are lured to be fodder for wars that ruin nations and destroy the humanity of human beings.”

Leaders of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, part of Chahed’s coalition government, denounced the school for failing to respect the law but urged more Islamic education at state schools.

“What we experience now with such schools is the result of the blow dealt to the Zitouna mosque,” said Ennahda leader Abdellatif Mekki.

He was referring to the education system that was replaced as part of reforms by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba and continued by his successor Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.