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In Tunisia, Self-Immolation Has Become A Common Form Of Suicide


I'll tell you right now, some people will find the next four minutes disturbing. In 2010, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in an act of rage against the country's dictatorship. His actions shocked Tunisians into mass demonstrations and sparked the Arab Spring. Since then, self-immolation has become a common form of suicide among Tunisians. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to Tunisia to find out why.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Life in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid revolves around the main square. And in the center of that square is a huge sculpture of a fruit cart carved out of rock and clay. It's a monument to Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire in 2010 after police from Tunisia's harsh regime confiscated his cart. The whole Middle East knows about Mohamed Bouazizi, but they don't know about Touti Farid (ph).

TOUTI FARID: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: I meet Farid at a town less than an hour from Sidi Bouzid, on the steps of the city hall where he set himself on fire in December of 2016.

FARID: (Through interpreter) I poured the gas all over myself, and my shirt caught fire. My jeans stuck to my burnt flesh.

SHERLOCK: Farid spent seven months in the hospital, but many others like him died. In fact, seven years since Bouazizi's famous self-immolation, the practice has become grimly commonplace. It's now one of the main methods of suicide in Tunisia, says Mehdi Ben Khelil, a doctor at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis who studies the phenomenon.

MEHDI BEN KHELIL: I can tell you that we still have more than three times more self-immolation than before the revolution.

SHERLOCK: Khelil says that in the months immediately after the 2011 revolution, the spike in cases could have been explained by what's known as the copycat effect - imitations of a widely publicized act. But it's continued. And in 2016, the main hospital burn unit in Tunisia admitted 104 people who had set themselves on fire. This is now also about poverty, says Khelil.

KHELIL: People were expecting a lot just after the revolution. They were waiting to improve themselves, to improve their economic capacities. And slowly, they were losing hope.

SHERLOCK: Today unemployment is at 15 percent. Often, says Khelil, people set themselves on fire to get the attention of government officials who control jobs.

FARID: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: That's like the case of Touti Farid, the 38-year-old immolation survivor who we spoke with. He graduated in computer science but couldn't find work despite years of trips to the city hall for a public sector job. He says the local government promised him some, but they never came through. And private sector jobs are even more scarce.

FARID: (Through interpreter) November came and left. December came, and my situation didn't change, and my mother fell sick. They cut off my electricity, and I couldn't pay the bill.

SHERLOCK: Something snapped inside Farid.

FARID: (Through interpreter) I was helpless. I couldn't afford my mother's health care, I couldn't pay my electricity bill, and I have no work. And the local government humiliated me.

SHERLOCK: So he went to the city hall and set himself on fire in the lobby.

FARID: (Through interpreter) I wanted them to know I did this to myself so they would feel responsible.

SHERLOCK: Both his legs are covered in painful skin grafts and scars. Many Tunisians who set themselves on fire and survive say they regret the act. But Farid says he still feels so hopeless that he can't promise he won't do it again.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Sidi Bouzid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "THEY'LL LIE TO YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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