Horror still fresh a year after Tunisia museum attack

Employees at the Bardo Museum are grappling with lasting trauma as tourists remain scarce.

Tunisia Bardo anniversary
Tourism has not returned to the Bardo Museum since the attack, as tourism revenues throughout the country have fallen by about a third [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]

Tunis – An attendant points to the bullet-scarred wall of the large Carthage Room inside Tunisia’s Bardo Museum. Another bullet hole marks a nearby glass case, displaying a statue from the second century AD.

“We see the traces every day, so it’s hard not to think about it,” attendant Lasad Bouali said.

Indeed, these remnants of violence are now inextricably linked to the Bardo Museum, which has decided to leave intact most traces of the deadly attack that occurred here one year ago.

“It’s part of the museum’s history,” chief curator and director Mocef Ben Moussa told Al Jazeera.

On the morning of March 18, 2015, two young Tunisians, who had trained in a Libyan camp, took tourists hostage in the museum. Three hours later, security forces ended the armed siege by killing both gunmen. Twenty-one foreign tourists and one police officer were killed.

READ MORE: Tunisia’s tourism struggling one month after massacre

The museum, housed in an Ottoman palace with one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics, will host a memorial ceremony on Friday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the deadly violence.

“Our message is that we are still here,” Ben Moussa said.

But for the museum’s 160 workers, including security guards, attendants and ticket sellers, the trauma caused by the shooting has not become any easier in the intervening months.

Bullets caused damage to this wall in the Bardo Museum's Carthage Room [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]
Bullets caused damage to this wall in the Bardo Museum’s Carthage Room [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]

Bouali, 44, remembers seeing the gunmen casually walk into the museum with AK47 assault rifles hanging off their shoulders. He hid with a Spanish couple in the sarcophagi room, and only emerged 22 hours later – hours after police had secured the premises, as no one initially found the trio to tell them it was safe.

“Especially when I’m alone, I hear the sounds of the shooting again echoing to where I was sitting under the stairs,” Bouali told Al Jazeera. 

While the Ministry of Health offered counselling to the museum’s employees, only a few have made use of it. 

Another museum attendant, who did not provide his name for fear of losing his job, said he did not sleep for two months after the shooting.

'Our message is that we are still here,' museum director Mocef Ben Moussa said [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]
‘Our message is that we are still here,’ museum director Mocef Ben Moussa said [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]

“Whenever we hear of an attack somewhere else, it all comes back again,” the attendant said. 

Attendant Ala Eddine Hamdi said he felt angry that no one ever thanked him for safeguarding and providing first aid to a group of tourists during the attack. He also expressed frustration over having worked at the museum without a formal contract for more than three years, earning only 167 Tunisian dinars ($80) each month.

“Every day, I am reminded of the pools of blood and lifeless bodies,” Hamdi, 23, told Al Jazeera.

On the day of the attack, only one police officer was on guard at the fence that encloses the museum grounds. The gunmen were able to walk in with their weapons hidden under their clothes.

That officer was accused of collaborating with the attackers and spent four months in prison before being released. “After analysing his mobile phone and some video recordings, they found he was innocent,” a police officer who guards the area between the museum and the parliament next door told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. He said the security situation has improved, but is still lacking.

The Bardo Museum’s head of security told Al Jazeera that the museum uses metal detectors, and security personnel search each visitor’s bag and car. But on a couple of recent days when Al Jazeera visited the museum, the X-ray machine for scanning bags and the metal detector at the building’s entrance were turned off, and security guards were not conducting pat-down searches.

The head of security said the metal detector had been turned off because a pregnant woman entered the museum. But employees at the museum shop said that the X-ray machine had not been working for months, and that most of the cameras in the museum were also non-operational.

They used to wait in long queues in front of the door. It's so quiet these days. We are now happy to see anybody here.

by Lasad Bouali, museum attendant

Ben Moussa said he believed a new metal detector would be installed soon, noting this was the responsibility of the interior ministry, but he declined to comment further on the employee’s remarks about other equipment not working. He noted that if “terrorists” wanted to attack the museum, “they always find a way”.

Tunisia’s interior ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

VIDEO: Tunisia museum attacker’s family speaks out

Meanwhile, tourism has not returned to the Bardo Museum since the attack – or to Tunisia more generally, with tourism revenues dropping by about a third in 2015.

The museum itself hosted about 60,000 visitors in the year after the attack, Ben Moussa said, but that is only about 10 percent of the total number of visitors that would have come 10 years ago. Before the attack, 90 percent of the visitors were foreigners, but that is now down to around 50 percent, he said.

The Bardo shooting, coupled with a second attack on tourists three months later on a beach near Sousse, have had a catastrophic impact on Tunisia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Around 400,000 Tunisians work in the tourism industry, according to the country’s tourism ministry, while many others earn a living indirectly from tourism, such as farmers who sell produce to hotels.

Many countries have advised their citizens against holidaying in Tunisia, and thousands of local people have lost their jobs, with hundreds of hotels shutting their doors. The museum’s employees, however, still hold out hope that visitor numbers will rise again.

“They used to wait in long queues in front of the door,” Bouali said. “It’s so quiet these days. We are now happy to see anybody here.”

Source: Al Jazeera