By Rita Sumano, ARCA Alumna Class of 2015
The Bardo Massacre
Tunisia’s democratic transition has been wounded by the atrocious attack at the Bardo Museum last 18th of March. Under the machinegun fire of Qatiba Okba Ibn Nafâa, a terrorist cell linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, 22 people died and more than 40 were injured.
Despite the claim of responsibility from the so called Islamic State, Tunisian authorities identified 21 individuals of Okba Ibn Nafâa split into four operative groups that carefully planned the operation (1). The role of the first group was to choose the target and make the necessary reconnaissance of the museum. The second group was responsible for the logistics, the provision of weapons, and explosives. The third group perpetrated the attack, while the fourth group taped and disseminated the images through the internet.
The timing and venue were not casually chosen. The complex commonly called “the Bardo” bears a deep historic and symbolic value, as it was a palace of the Beys, the former rulers of the country. After Tunisia’s Independence, one wing was converted into a museum and the other wing turned into the Parliament, now the Assembly of the People's Representatives. The unique mosaic collection of the Bardo Museum – the largest in the world - contains mainly Roman art. In this context, the attack could be interpreted as a violent message against both democracy and any other form of non-Islamic culture.
The attack was also timely as the National Terrorist Act was being discussed that same morning in the Parliament; children had school holidays and were present in the musuem in great numbers; and, as reported by a guide present at the scene (2), terrorists waited for the arrival of tourist buses coming from the cruise ships that dock every Wednesday at La Goulette. Hiding machine guns in large backpacks, they had time to spread out through the Museum and wait for the visitors to arrive. Tourists were selected as a suitable target to wreck the country’s shaken economy, highly dependent on tourism.
As a result of this murderous attack, the lead suspect of the cell and 46 terrorists (3) have been eliminated or arrested. Several heads of security in charge of the Bardo area, as well as six commanders of police and intelligence services have been dismissed.(4)
The Tuesday After
International media said the museum would open to the public on Tuesday 24th, but the few hundred people that showed up could only gather around the gate. Inside, an official opening ceremony was taking place. Security was tight, polite but tense. Under steady rain, men, women, and children gathered to show support. The feeling floating in the air was neither anger nor fear, but rather sadness.
I spoke to Geologist Kamal Jallouli, representative of the civil society at the National Parliament, who had been there a few hours before the attack. Emotionally touched, he told me about his childhood when he would spend Sundays exploring the museum’s collection with his parents. He praises the long, diverse history of the country and warns me that the investigation into the attack is still open. I knew that there would be many answers he could not provide, but I still asked the questions:
Q. Some international sources talk about the attack being initially directed at the Parliament but that ended up taking place in the museum. Nevertheless, it looked to me as if the venue was carefully selected. Do you think the attack was initially directed to the parliament?
-“No”, he answered shortly.
Q. In that case, one might infer that the terrorists were familiar with the museum, and must have visited it many times. Could they have been identified had the museum guards carried out effective surveillance?
-“I guess so”
Q. Is it plausible to think of an insider providing assistance?
-“I cannot answer that question”
Q. Do you think this type of attack could escalate into plundering Tunisia’s heritage sites?
Kamal Jallouli is confident that as we speak, security forces are being deployed to guard archeological sites, other museums and touristic spots. He doesn’t think that this incident is part of a larger plot.
Q. A few days before the attack, downtown Tunis looked heavily guarded: police checkpoints, dogs sniffing cars, hand bags being checked and several forces being deployed. So why, in such a “hot spot” was security so lax?
–“Because we Tunisians are candid, we have no tradition of violence”, he replies with a shy smile.
His answer is the most convincing one I have received so far.
Hours passed by, and as steady rain was transformed into a downpour, a human river also flooded the streets around the Bardo Museum. Nearly 50,000 people of all sorts and several nations participated in an inspirational, almost spontaneous, demonstration against terrorism. The museum’s gate was the final goal of the crowds taking part in the march. The happy coincidence with the World Social Forum taking place in Tunis, engrossed the international presence and added to the feeling of solidarity.
In parallel, the deployment and weaponry of security forces was significantly heavier than in the early hours, but the ambiance was festive and police and army elements were friendly. Participants would smile and take proud pictures with police and military… certainly not the typical interaction between security forces and demonstrators.
Under the rain, music, dance, chants and cameras show how cultural heritage could be an effective tool to build peace. The feeling floating in the air was hope.
with friendly soldier
The Bardo attack had a triple target: it was an attack against democracy, against tourism and against culture. The Bardo Museum is not an exceptional example of how close, physically and symbolically, many museums are to power centers. Many other cities in the world could have been victims of such an attack, and this should send a warning to all cultural institutions: to be fully prepared for this and other types of catastrophes.
In recent years, we have witnessed how cultural heritage has been devastated due to political instability, religious fundamentalism, and armed conflicts; similar crimes, could be perpetrated in comparable places.
Operators should engage in an active preventive role, carrying out proper selection and training of staff and making sure that the risk to visitors, personnel or the collection is minimized. Museum security is a professional activity that should not be left to amateurs.