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Family remember struggle of Mohamed Bouazizi Open in fullscreen

Basma Barakat

Family remember struggle of Mohamed Bouazizi

Mohamed's family says his wheelbarrow remains in their possession [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 17 December, 2014

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Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself on 17 December 2010 in protest at oppression in Tunisia. His family remember him four years on as a man who was trying his best to feed his family.

On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at injustice. His death was the catalyst for protests across the Arab world that became known as the Arab Spring.

On the fourth anniversary of Mohamed's death, his brother, Salem, told al-Araby al-Jadeed what had driven a man to commit such a desperate act: the unemployment and injustice suffered by many Tunisians just like himself.

A traditional family

Mohamed was part of a large Tunisian family with many siblings: Salem being the eldest, then Mohamed, Layla, Samia, Karim and Ziad.

Salem said Mohamed’s real name was Tareq, but the family had nicknamed him Mohamed. His brother was a man of humour, he added.

Mohamed's attended the technical institute of Sidi Bouzid, but stopped his studies so that his sister could attend university. The family simply could not pay for both.

And so Mohamed turned to his wheelbarrow to earn for the family, after seeing how hard his mother was working.

Still, Salem said, Mohamed hoped to finish his studies and then join the Tunisian army. Indeed he received an invitation from the army shortly before his death, but did not accept.

     Mohamed got petrol from the nearest station. Then he went in front of the municipality building, poured petrol on his body and set it on fire.


Mohamed bought fruit and vegetables for himself and his friends at the wholesalers in Sidi Bouzid, which they would then sell on the streets. It was their main source of income, despite most of them holding university degrees.

Salem recalls how Mohamed was prevented from doing even this - he was regularly fined for not having the right permit, or being somewhere he shouldn't. His goods were regularly seized and given to hospitals and charities - according to those who took them.

"Mohamed tried repeatedly to meet the mayor, but he refused to meet him," Salem said, adding that his brother was overwhelmed by summons and fines one after another.

It reached a point, Salem said, where the fines had wiped out Mohamed's profits, and the harassment by police got too much.

"Mohamed's friends said that he was being harassed by police on the day of the incident," Salem said. "They intervened and asked the police to leave him alone."

Salem said on 17 December, Mohamed's goods were once again confiscated and another fine issued. Mohamed decided to mount his wheelbarrow, shouting: "I am tyrannised. I am oppressed."

"Mohamed got petrol from the nearest station. Then he went in front of the municipality building, poured petrol on his body and set it on fire."

Mohamed's street-seller wheelbarrow is kept in his grandfather's storeroom in Lsoda, about 8km from Sidi Bouzid, and sums up his struggle to earn a living.

A sister's memory

Mohamed's sister, Samia, described him as the closest of her brothers. "Mohamed, Salem and Layla are my maternal brothers and sisters. Their father died and my mother got married and gave birth to me and others," Samia said.

She dismissed as insults claims that the family had profited from Mohamed’s death. The family has admitted being paid for interviews and state receiving state compensation for Mohamed's death, meaning they have been able to afford a better place to live. But they are steadfast that Mohamed's cart has not been sold to a rich Emirati, despites the claims, and remains in the family's possession.

Layla, another of Mohamed's siblings, added: "Mohamed was always close to us at home. He was a cheerful soul, never without a smile. However, after his death, rumours affected the family greatly, especially our mother who got sick."

Never forgotten

Hajja Mnoubiya, Mohamed's mother, 62, is in Canada for treatment. She told al-Araby that she wished to be in Sidi Bouzid on the death anniversary of her son. "My heart is in Tunisia and I am in pain because I will not be present on the memory of my son's death. Had it not been for the treatment deadline, I would have been in Tunisia," she said.

Hajja said Mohamed used to urge her not to give up and to continue the teaching of his sisters, Layla in particular. He was the head of the family who watched over their welfare, she added, and a victim of the greatest injustice while trying to fulfil his duties to his family.

She said several political figures had visited her during the revolution and immediately after Mohamed’s death. But after a while, the visits stopped. Other countries invited her to travel to honour her son, invitations she said filled her with pride.

She would never forget Mohamed, she added, and the rumours about him and what happened after his death caused her great pain. "May God forgive those who spread these rumours," she said.

This is an edited translation of the Arabic original.

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