The Women who Survived at the Foot of Mount Mghilla

In the village of Blahdiya, Fatma makes her way through the crowd gathered to offer their condolences. At her feet lay a grid of newly constructed graves: the final resting place of the Sabbela accident victims. Fatma could have been one of them, but fate had other plans for her. For this farm worker, survival is a daily struggle. 
Written by | 10 May 2019 | reading-duration 15 minutes

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On April 27th, 2019, thirteen people died on the road to Sabbela, a town in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid. The majority were women from Blahdiya, a small village at the base of Mount Mghilla. They had risen at dawn to catch their ride to the farm, during which they stood shoulder to shoulder, in the back of a truck. Before reaching the worksite, their arduous journey came to an abrupt end. 

The following day, a few dozen people, including representatives of civil society organizations and political leaders, come to offer their condolences to the families of the victims. The small hill-side cemetery in Blahdiya’s center has expanded. Kneeling men spread the last layers of cement on the ten or so graves.

Off to the side, a young man sits on a brick, his face impassive. Around his head he has tied a green scarf patterned with colorful flowers. It belonged to his mother, who was buried the day before. This scarf has since become a symbol of rural women's struggle against the many injustices they suffer.

Beyond the accidents

To reach her house, Fatma still has another 15 minutes to walk. She lives with six of her seven children on the other side of the dry ravine. Her husband and eldest son are absent. They work as construction workers on the coastal towns of Sousse and Hammamet, respectively.

As the only caregiver for her children, Fatma gets up every morning before sunrise to begin the day’s work. The farmworker narrowly escaped the tragedy in her village. Now, she has a new employer and a new carrier, the previous one having died in the accident.  

Every day but Sunday, she walks to a nearby meeting point where she gathers with many other women and a few men and children who, like her, are waiting for carriers to pick them up.

" Sometimes we wait and wait, but there's no work. So we go home and sleep on an empty stomach."

When they are called upon to work the land of a local farmer, the workers pile up in the back of a truck or on a trailer. Along the more or less functional road to their destination, the journey can take up to three hours. " When you arrive, you are already tired and you have to get down right away" to cultivate the land. When the day comes to an end, Fatma returns to her modest home the same way she came.

Cracked walls divide the two small rooms of her house. The cement floor is strewn with  thin, dusty foam mattresses. An analog TV as the only entertainment, an old refrigerator, food left out on a chest of drawers, and a corner filled with miscellaneous items complete the picture. Fatma was born and has lived all her life in Blahdiya. " Where do you want me to go?" she asks, rhetorically.

A daily Struggle

For each workday, these female farmworkers receive 10 dinars out of the 14 dinars paid by their employer. The rest goes to the truck driver. " It's normal, the price of gas has gone up and we have to go 30 kilometres from here," says Khemaïes, Fatma's son. " Without these carriers, we wouldn’t be able to work, we'd starve!"

Khemaïes is 17 years old. He is the only one of his siblings to continue his education. To get to his high school, he has to take the same type of transportation as his mother. He himself is a survivor of a road accident. His right leg still suffers from the after effects. His 12-year-old sister dropped out of school, and now occasionally works with their mother in the fields. But many employers no longer allow it, claiming that she’s not tough or productive enough for the job.

On average, Fatma's husband visits them every three months. " With the rent he pays in Sousse and his daily expenses, he barely helps us. He gives us no more than 150 or 200 dinars whenever possible," she says, while excusing him. " He can't always find work and it's dangerous, he's already fallen."

Who’s to blame for this situation? The state and those who govern it. " I’ve never received anything from them. What are they doing here if they can't help us?" Even if the village is served by electricity, the water boreholes installed are often broken, forcing Blahdiya’s residents to walk several kilometres to reach the collective standpipe installed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

With about 300 dinars a month, Fatma, who has had seven home births, has as many mouths to feed. She cannot afford to seek medical treatment, despite her health problems. " Why don't we have hospitals or clinics here? We, too, are Tunisians."

For Fatma, the carriers are not to blame, especially since they live in the same village and under the same conditions. " These are our neighbors. The one with the truck was also carrying his mother, who also died. They are the ones who go to farmers and find work for the rest of us," she insists.

“Another World” 

Basma, Fatma's neighbor, confirms it. Both women claim to have witnessed corruption at the hands of local law enforcement agents. " They stop the truck and ask the driver for money. Once, they asked him for 150 dinars. Where is he supposed to get this money from?" asks Basma. " That's also why they load so many people, otherwise they don't earn anything."

With two young children to take care of, Basma is unable to work. Her husband, a farmworker, struggles to provide for the family. But for her as well, transportation is a source of anxiety that greatly angers her. Her daughter suffers from allergies and needs treatment.

" I have to pay 100 dinars to take her to the hospital in Sousse," mainly in transportation fees.

" I can no longer afford it," she protests, while throwing a pile of prescriptions and documents on the ground. “ Just the cream to soothe her allergies costs me 14 dinars. When you go to the pharmacy, you have to just pay the price. No one will reimburse you for anything," the young woman adds. If she is unable to travel, she buys only the cream, praying that her daughter's condition doesn’t worsen.

On the day of the accident, Basma turned on the television, hoping  that the media would be covering the injustices faced by the people of Blahdiya. But the entertainment programs passed from one to the next, displaying " another world."

" It's strange," she says.  " I turn on the TV, I find shows where people talk about makeup and fashion. We're starving here, we're wearing out, they suck us dry and then we see this on TV. It's really strange."

The call of the mountain

Despite Blahdiya’s beautiful landscapes, the atmosphere is heavy. Helicopters fly over the mountain that overlooks the valley. For several years, Mount Mghilla has been the scene of attacks led by armed groups and security forces. At the foot of the mountain, the inhabitants live to the rhythm of these operations.

" Their helicopters fly by twenty times a day. They surround the mountain with their weapons, but they don't consider us. How will they feel what we feel?" complains Basma.

" It’s a good thing we’re not entering the mountain to join the fight... and still they treat us like terrorists."

Basma, Fatma, and other mothers in the village worry for their children's futures. They are deeply concerned about the obstacles that young people face even from a young age: difficulty accessing schools, a lack of opportunities, an uncertain future, etc. " Young people face only walls in front of them, everything is locked." Sometimes, dying or leaving the country seem like the only options. 

" If you force someone into the forest, don't be surprised if they become wild, if they no longer feel anything... if their heart grows callous."   

sowing discord


Every year, dozens of agricultural workers are injured or killed in road accidents. Since April 27, at least two other accidents have been reported in Kasserine and Medenine, which resulted in several injuries. Between 2015 and May 2019, the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) reported 40 deaths and more than 500 injuries of farmworkers from road accidents. 

The governorate of Kairouan has the highest number of victims - more than a hundred - followed by Monastir. Taking into account the fatal accident in Sabbela, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid records the highest number of deaths - about fifteen - and more than 70 casualties since 2015.  

The emotions incited by the Sabbela tragedy, as well as its wide media coverage, have led to a number of actions. Several charities and political movements provided financial and in-kind support to the families of the victims in Blahdiya. 

" There is a lot of money and donations going around, but we haven't received anything," laments Fatma, in early May. 

According to Basma, these advantages granted to a limited number of people have created a noxious atmosphere among the villagers. " There are people blocking the roads to pick up these donations, we have to be careful," she says. 

The government has also announced a series of measures to help agricultural workers. The "Ahmini" (protect me) initiative, officially launched on May 10, 2019 by the Ministry of Agriculture, aims to enable these marginalized groups to benefit from social security (CNSS), provided that they register by telephone and pay their own contributions (around 50 dinars per quarter). 

But Basma, whose daughter requires regular medical care, remains sceptical. " Not only do we have to pay when we can barely survive, but, again, who will pay for the transportation fees to the hospital? They brought a bus to transport the workers. Other than that, nothing has changed."