Tunisia's poor hit hardest by wildfires as residents pick up pieces

One dead from widespread blazes as livelihoods go up in smoke

The National reports from Tabarka as wildfires spread on the Tunisian-Algerian border

The National reports from Tabarka as wildfires spread on the Tunisian-Algerian border
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As wildfires that have raged for three days in Tunisia are brought under control, residents of areas most impacted are considering how to begin the recovery.

Temperatures continue to hover around record highs of 48°C in the country's northern Tabarka region. The 2,300 villagers of Meloula have taken up residence in schools, youth hostels and other public spaces as they wait for the all-clear to return home.

Even as authorities declare fires extinguished, locals have not escaped unscathed, with one dead from smoke inhalation and 170 in hospital.

There has also been an economic cost that is beginning to be counted as residents wade through the ash to tot up what they have lost.

Tabarka has a 16.7 per cent poverty rate, according to Tunisia’s National Statistics Institute, and most families rely on agriculture and tourism to make ends meet due to limited development in the region.

Families in Tabarka were forced to abandon livestock and farmland as the flames ravaged the landscape.

Activists are calling on the state to help the nation's poorest get back on their feet. Some have lost everything to fires multiple times.

“Civil society from across Tunisia started organising relief campaigns for affected families, but it is the state that should primarily assume its responsibility,” Amel Aloui, a local activist and the town’s former mayor told The National.

“Seeing people cry for losing their farming projects, which they hoped would safeguard their families’ future, is heartbreaking.

“Our problem in Tabarka is not only the wildfires, here we have no development, no projects, no infrastructure and they only remember us when one disaster hits.”

Starting over

Adel and Dalinda Medini's fledgling eco-friendly restaurant business Pure Nature drew in customers keen for good food and spectacular views over the sea from a coveted site in the Meloula forest.

“The fire was painful for us but we also feel happy as people keep showing us an overwhelming amount of support,” Mr Medini told The National near the burnt husk of his restaurant's kitchen.

It did not have to be this way, he said.

Mr Medini claims his water had been cut off for 50 days by the Tunisian distribution company. Even when the fire broke out, they refused to turn on the supply to help keep the flames at bay.

They aren't the only ones mourning the loss of a beautiful landscape. The sight of ashy grey trees all around Meloula is painful, especially to those who have grown up there and took pride in what nature has given the region.

“We started from the bottom, so we are used to such crises. It just hurts because we know that this place will not be the same anymore,” Ms Medini said.

Sisters Salha and Meriem Ouerheni came so close to losing both their homes and their farm for a second time.

“The last time something like this happened, all my cows, chickens and dogs were killed, this time if I had not relied on myself, the same could have happened,” Salha Ouerheni said.

The sisters live in Gureguer village in Tabarka, an isolated area in the mountains where one of the fires broke out.

“When flames started reaching the trees surrounding our house, we had no option but to try to extinguish it ourselves, we could not bear to lose our house again,” Salha Ouerheni told The National.

The two sisters could never afford to replace the cattle they lost in a previous wildfire several years ago. They said no one from the state helped them.

“They do not know we even exist here so I was never hopeful in the first place,” Salha Ouerheni said.

The relentless need to provide for herself forced Salha Ouerheni back to work at a local hotel on Wednesday, wincing in pain from burns she sustained protecting her home. Meriem Ouerheni continues to suffer the impact of breathing in smoke.

Ms Aloui, the former mayor, said that the region has contacted the central government numerous times asking it to at least fix their infrastructure problems, but they are always met with disregard.

“As if it’s not enough for people to suffer from poverty and marginalisation, now they have to deal with wildfires and its repercussions,” Ms Aloui said.

Updated: July 27, 2023, 5:28 AM