Marhan & Mohamed’s Furious Fight for the Family Land

As the democratic promise of the Arab Spring slowly fades, two Tunisians battle to win back the property stolen from them through decades of imprisonment, torture and abuse.

The first thing you notice about Marhan Habessi is the scar on his left cheek — a long, deep cut, etched into his face with a knife. Twice, he has had operations to make the scar less visible. At his last consultation, a doctor suggested covering the scar with hair implants from Marhan’s head, but the procedure is too expensive. Marhan was born in Tunisia, but when people ask, he tells them that he’s Syrian because that tends to get more sympathy — people are less judgmental about his dark skin, his Muslim name, and the scar on his face when he says he’s escaped from a country they’ve seen being blown up on the evening news. By contrast, his home country, Tunisia, thanks to a successful ad campaign by the Ministry of Tourism, has had a reputation of a vacation paradise for many years. Although recent attacks against foreigners at the country’s Bardo Museum and at a beach resort at Sousse a few months ago are starting to shed light on Tunisia’s problems, many people that Marhan encunters in Paris don’t seem to realize that Tunisia has a long history of torture and violence.

Three years ago, Marhan made the journey to Italy from southern Tunisia in a small fishing boat. Nobody at home knew where he had gone, or that he had paid smugglers to take him across the sea to Italy. As the boat approached Sicily, the smugglers instructed the people on their boat to jump into the sea, and pointed at the direction they’d have to swim to reach land. Nine days after he disappeared Marhan called his father, Mohamed, from a payphone in Sicily.

“I’m alive, Dad,” he said, “but my scar is infected.”

He then walked for about a week, around five hundred miles, all the way to Paris.

* * *

In a small café in Tunis, Mohamed lights a cigarette and recalls one of the last conversations he had with his son before he left. He wishes he’d taken Marhan’s words more seriously at the time.

“Dad, I hate this life,” he’d said. “I’d rather die than stay here. I want to run away and live my life in a country of justice and equality, where they respect the law.”

Marhan was born and raised under dictatorships. He can’t remember a time when his family wasn’t being targeted by the authorities. As a child, he saw his father being dragged to prison and coming back covered with scars of torture. When two men carved the scar in his face, he knew he was the next target, and would receive the same treatment his father had.

Mohamed, a butcher by trade, inherited thousands of acres of land from his father in the 1970s. Now he is fighting for the Habessi family’s land in court, land that his forefathers entrusted him with, land which was once filled with olive trees and cactus fruit, and which now lies derelict, land that he needs to win back if he’s ever going to convince his son that it’s safe to come home.

“The municipality have heaped piles of garbage onto the land so I can’t even use it to farm,” Mohamed says, gesturing out the window of the car that’s taking us across a field that was once his front garden. He points to the ruins of a concrete building, and says, “See that? That was the house I grew up in. And that cactus plant — it’s the same plant from my childhood. These lands have been in my family for generations. Getting them back is a question of dignity.”

Mohamed is a regular face in the waiting room of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission. When he walks through the metal detectors at the entrance, the security guards greet him by his first name and ask about his wife’s health. He goes, like many others, to share his story. The commission was set up as part of the new constitution, after the people of Tunisia brought down Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt dictatorship during the Jasmine revolution in 2011, the first of a string of revolutions that became known collectively as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia was ruled by dictators for fifty-five years after gaining independence. The first president, Habib Bourgiba, led the country’s fight for freedom against French colonizers. His presidency saw Tunisia’s transformation into a single-party state, and though at first he was considered a benign ruler, the final years of his dictatorship saw the rise of nepotism, land grabs and corruption.

In 1987, the newly-appointed Prime Minister Ben Ali led a coup and put the aging dictator under house arrest in Monastir, the town that Marhan would flee to 25 years later, in transit to Italy. Ben Ali allowed a mafia-style elite to run the country. His own family and the family of the first lady Leila Ben Ali, the Trabelsis, seized private land for themselves to build presidential retreats, hotels and homes for their cronies. They imprisoned political opponents and used police oppression to control the country. After the 2011 revolution, the pair escaped to Saudi Arabia, where they’ve lived ever since.

* * *

The first claims on Mohamed’s lands were made under President Habib Bourgiba in the 1970s. After a long legal battle, which lasted almost a decade, Mohamed was able to prove the lands were his own. The legal victory gave him a few years of peace. Then one day in 1988, a year after Ben Ali took control of the country, Mohamed was working on his land when a government official came and offered to buy the land cheap. Mohamed refused. In the days that followed, Mohamed was taken to jail and accused of murder.

“My children were left all alone at home, like orphans,” he said. “In prison, they beat me so badly that I had to be taken straight to hospital.”

The Habessis’ land is particularly valuable because it stretches across the suburbs of the capital, Tunis, and neighbors some of the city’s most upmarket residential areas. The high value of the land only encouraged the corrupt ruling elite’s persistence in coming up with new ways to steal it.

Once, when he was working on the land, one of the Trabelsi brothers came with a group of thugs. “They handcuffed me to a car and dragged me around from here to there,” Mohamed says, pointing to a stretch of around fifty yards. “They were laughing at me. They said, ‘This land you’re fighting for, we’ll kill you here on the same land.’”

The Trabelsis and their henchmen used a series of companies to procure Mohamed’s land. According to Mohamed, the companies forged and faked documents to seize his lands, claiming that he had voluntarily agreed to sell them. Once, they even showed him his own death certificate and asked how he could be the owner of these lands if he was legally dead.

One of Mohamed’s aims is to work with the Truth and Dignity Commission to find a paper trail in the old government archives, to prove that the lands that belong to his family were stolen.

For the last eight months, Mohamed has come to the commission headquarters in Tunis three times a week, holding his folder of evidence which gets bigger as he finds new scraps and documents to show, including photos of the scar on Marhan’s face and a doctor’s note from 2012 confirming that Marhan had an operation to repair it. The folder has other documents: deeds showing his father’s ownership of his land, photographs he’s taken of the new properties erected where he once used to farm, medical receipts.

The journey to Commission headquarters in Tunis takes him at least an hour on the bus. Headed by former human-rights campaigner Sihem Bensedrine, the Truth and Dignity Commission is modeled on Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to begin a peace process in post-conflict South Africa. For the next four years, they will listen to the cases of 17,000 Tunisians who have come forward to give evidence against the Ben Ali and Bourgiba dictatorships. Mohamed’s case has been marked as part of a list of high-priority cases because of his old age and the severity of the abuse he suffered.

Marhan was only a child at the time, but he remembers those years. “They took me out of school and told the principal not to let me come back there,” he says. “When I tried to start working, they’d come and arrest me.”

As Marhan grew up, he tried to open his own restaurant and then a café but both were closed without explanation by the Department of Health, just like they’d done to his father’s butcher shops. If the Habessi family had no money, they had no chance of hiring a lawyer or fighting back in court against the seizure of their land or the tactics used.

Mohamed was not the kind of man who would take the abuse silently. He recalls a time in the late ’90s when he tried to swim to Ben Ali’s presidential palace in Carthage to see him personally about getting the land back. Instead of approaching the front gate, he swam across a segment of the Mediterranean Sea, which the palace overlooks and tried to climb the hill on which it is built. The guards caught him trying to enter.

In 1997 a government official picked Mohamed up from his family home and took him to jail. “They took me to another region to torture me — somewhere far so I wouldn’t know where I was,” he says. “They said, ‘Whether or not you like it, you have to say that you sold the land.’

“I said, ‘No, I have not sold my land.’

“They said, ‘You have sold it,’ and I said again and again, ‘No I have not sold it.’

“Then they beat me so badly that I passed out for two days. When I woke up, they put a paper in front of me and forced me to sign it. I was so exhausted, I signed without knowing what I was doing.”

Mohamed spent two months in prison that year. By the time he came out, he had scars all over his body and had developed a tremor in his hands.

Even now, as he tells the story, he hides his hands in the pockets of his raincoat so that you can’t see them shaking. “They hung me upside down, like a roast chicken, head down and naked. They hit me all over my body, they burned my tongue with cigarettes. They put weights on my body, they tortured me with knives until I bled. And when I fainted they threw water on me.”

* * *

In 2012, a year after Ben Ali was ousted from power, Marhan was on his way home from the hamam, a traditional Turkish public bath, when he was attacked by Trabelsi’s thugs.

Thinking he could rely on the revolution’s promises of a new Tunisia, Mohamed had asked his lawyer to start proceedings to get their land back. But even though the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families had either fled or been imprisoned, their allies hung on to positions of power. Marhan remembers the two men who came for him. They attacked him to send a message to his father. One held his arms while the other beat him. Then they took a knife and cut his face. One of the men who attacked him was convicted for the crime and spent one year of a five-year sentence in jail. The other served no time.

That was the final straw for Marhan. “I had to leave,” he says.

Marhan called friends and relatives, looking for someone who could help him get out. Eventually, a smuggler from Monastir agreed to take him across. He remembers spending a few nights in someone’s garage while they arranged the voyage. Then, they took him and others waiting to get across the sea to the shore in a big truck. He didn’t know anyone else on the boat or on the other side of the sea.

“When I got to Italy I had to sleep on the streets,” he says. Without a passport or any valid papers, no job and no apartment, Marhan had no choice but to stay in a homeless shelter. He used the public toilets to keep himself clean. In Paris, a couple of friendly Algerians saw him sleeping on a sidewalk and asked him to move in with them. He found work in a fruit and vegetable market, and made around thirty euro a day, half the national minimum wage. He’s had a few girlfriends, but says they’ve all broken things off as soon as they started getting serious, worrying that he’s only interested in a visa.

Marhan calls his father on Skype once every few weeks. These days he doesn’t have anything but bad news to give. He asks about his mother’s ailing health and Mohamed gives him updates on his latest trip to the Truth and Dignity Commission. “They found some documents which can help us in court in the archive,” he said happily during their last conversation. Even when he has a slow meeting, he remains upbeat. “They’re doing what they can to help us.”

Living in limbo, Marhan waits every day for a phone call from his father to reassure him that he will be safe in his country. He hates the daily drudgery of Paris life. With no job and only a few friends, Marhan is forced into idleness. He has no long-term plans, trying to make it through a day at a time. Mohamed is waiting to see his son return. Old and weak, he knows he only has a few more years of life in him. Getting his land back for his son has become his only mission. If he succeeds in that, he says his life’s struggle will have been worth it and he can die in peace.

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