Runaways from Tunisia Search for an Identity in Jihad

Seddik had told his parents that he would be home at 6:30 PM. They called the police to report their son missing. When the police arrived at a suspect’s house, his family said he had already left to fight in Syria shortly after communicating with...

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Aug 29 2014, 6:13pm

“I miss my son,” said Mosef Abedi as he looked straight into the camera. “If you’re holding my son, I beg you to return him to me.”

Mosef is a 64-year-old man with an untrimmed beard, thick moustache, and a web of wrinkles under his eyes.  He sat next to his wife in their living room with a Qur’an in his right hand and a frame of their 16-year-old son in his left. Like many teenagers from El Kef, a modest town in the north west of Tunisia, their son Seddik spent mornings in school before heading to the neighborhood mosque to study the Qur’an. On the morning of February 2, 2014, he left for school and never returned.

“He clutched my hands and kissed them gently before he left,” said Seddik’s mother Saida, as she sat next to her husband on their living room sofa.

Seddik had told his parents that he would be home at 6:30 PM. When they received no word of his whereabouts hours later, they called the police to report their son missing. The police waited 24 hours before initiating their search. When they started, they traced Seddik’s phone and found that he had dialed a Tunisian Spanish teacher eight times on the night he disappeared.

When the police arrived at the suspect’s house, his family said he had already left to fight in Syria shortly after communicating with Seddik.

Following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, men once affiliated with the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF)—a militant movement repressed under former dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali—received amnesty from prison and returned from exile after fighting for decades in distant conflicts.

The end to autocratic rule and rising poverty throughout the country enabled networks of militant Islam to establish influences in local mosques and assist communities neglected by the government. Since militants returned, thousands have departed to extremist groups abroad, and a local film maker has sought to document the fates of the families left behind.

On July 23, I traveled to El Kef to meet Seddik’s parents with Youssef Ben Ammar, a 25-year-old Tunisian filmmaker.

Youssef located Mosef through first contacting the Rescue Association for Tunisians Trapped Abroad, a domestic NGO established in August 2013 to help families find relatives who have taken up arms in foreign conflicts. When Mosef received word about Youssef’s proposal, he thought that someone with knowledge of his son’s whereabouts might see the film. Youssef refused to make such promises, but Mosef’s faith inspired the title of his project.

“The film is called Condemned to Hope, because as Youssef told me over coffee, “Seddik’s family has no choice but to expect the return of their son.”

Mosef and Saida insist that religious teachers brainwashed their son since the revolution. While their community has offered moral support through their despair, they are convinced that their child is fighting in Syria.  

In 2011 Seddik traveled to Ben Guerdane—a town in the south of Tunisia on the Libyan border—with the intention to partake in the Libyan civil war.  Without knowledge of his son’s whereabouts, Mosef and Saida panicked for hours until border police notified them of Seddik’s arrest.

“After he arrived home, he refused to tell us anything,” said Mosef as he placed Seddik’s frame on the table next to him.

“Seddik was the flower of the house,” said Saida, as she folded his old clothes in his bedroom. “I can’t understand why he fixed jihad as his objective.”           

Three years later, due to a new law restricting travel to persons under the age of 25 without parental consent, Seddik asked his father for his passport and a letter of permission to visit his cousins in Algeria. With the incident long behind the family, Mosef prepared his son’s travel documents without suspicion.

Seddik went missing the following month.

Michael Ayari, a senior Tunisian analyst for International Crisis Group, said that because militant Islam first and foremost represents a refusal of authority, movements have received added popularity from Tunisians isolated from the country’s democratic transition.

“Everyone has their own incentives for joining such groups,” said Ayari. “For some, I think becoming a jihadist fulfills a romanticism to find an identity.”

“Perhaps Seddik was searching for a new way to exist,” said Youssef, as he shifted through footage of his film on his computer.

As Seddik’s parents deal with his disappearance, thoughts of their son killing innocent people have grown most disturbing. Before praying on the carpet of his living room, pleading to God for the return of his son, Mosef told Youssef that he always wanted Seddik to follow the path of God, until now.

Today, Condemned to Hope is scheduled to view at a national competition hosted by the French and Goethe institute in Tunis on October 10. By capturing the misery of a family who fears their son has abandoned them for jihad, Youssef’s film intends to challenge the perspective of his viewers in the same way he has challenged his own.

“Is Seddik a terrorist or a runaway child?” Youssef asked me rhetorically. “I hope my audience ponders the same question.”

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