DOUAR RAJAYBIYA, TUNISIA // Locals, still in shock, use only the French word “l’accident” to refer to what happened on their usually peaceful hillside.
A military bus carrying young soldiers from their barracks ran into fire from a small group presumed to be Islamist extremists. They had been lying in wait on a forested slope below the road, not far from the small town of Neber.
As Tunisians go to the polls again on Sunday, in the first presidential election since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by the 2011 revolution, “terrorism” is a keyword with candidates pledging to restore Tunisians’ “security and peace of mind”.
If the armed groups have not so far targeted civilians, in some rural areas the feeling of security has gone. This latest attack, on November 5, took place where the main road linking the two provincial capitals of Kef and Jendouba twists round the hillside before beginning its descent towards Neber. It was around 2pm.
Farther down the road, a hand-painted sign outside a hut announces “Roadside Refreshments”. Here Marwan, 26, was helping his mother that day with the business they had opened just six weeks earlier.
After the emergency services had taken over, he walked up the road to see what had happened. “I could see lots of blood on the steps of the bus,” he said. He had never before been close to a scene of such violence.
The soldier driving the bus had been shot first, as he attempted desperately to reverse. Several more were injured, some of them dying later in hospital, bringing total deaths to five. Soldiers aboard the bus had returned fire, the authorities said later, but the assailants got away.
Outside Kef hospital the following morning, local people watching in the rain burst spontaneously into the national anthem as the soldiers’ bodies were brought out to be taken back to the barracks and then handed over to their families.
Across rural Tunisia, the army, the national guard and the prison service are among the few sources of stable employment for young men. Uniformed local men can often be seen hitching rides for visits home. Any casualties are keenly felt in a nation whose army has not fought a major battle since trying to force French troops from their last base in the country in 1961.
“What do they want? Who knows. They’re sick. They’re warped,” said a national guard officer as pointed out the broken glass from the bus windscreen and the sand scattered to conceal the bloodstains.
“People join these gangs for lack of money and lack of women,” he said, echoing media discussion about the approximately 3,000 young Tunisians believed to have joined Islamist groups in Syria and northern Iraq.
In some rural areas families live in desperate poverty and may be tempted to supply armed groups with food or water in return for cash, security sources say.
Under-equipped hospitals in the marginalised west are also in the spotlight. “Frankly, Jendouba Hospital is good for giving injections, not much more,” said one member of the security services. Several casualties from the November 5 attack were rushed from the Kef hospital to the military hospital in Tunis.
The armed groups are believed to include extremists who benefited from an amnesty for political prisoners after the January 2011 revolution. Hundreds of Tunisians may have joined Algerian-based extremist groups since the uprising, according to analyst Moncef Kartas, author of a 2013 report for the Geneva-based research project The Small Arms Survey.
Clashes with armed groups, or detonations of explosive devices left by them, have taken the lives of about 66 members of Tunisia’s security services members since late 2012.
That total includes 46 soldiers and 13 members of the national guard, which has responsibility for borders and rural areas.
Public anxiety over extremist violence contributed to the defeat of the Islamist party Ennahda in last month's legislative elections. Ennahda's opponents in the Nida Tounes party accused the parliamentary Islamists of having been complacent about the violence when they headed a coalition government through 2012 and 2013.
Mr Kartas and fellow analyst Michael Ayari, of the International Crisis Group think tank, meanwhile warn that the picture at Tunisia’s border regions is a complex one, and not all violence is ideologically motivated. The two borders have long-standing alternative economies based on contraband, often involving relatively innocuous merchandise. From 2011 new operators moved in, trading especially in weapons looted from the armouries of Muammar Qaddafi after he was overthrown in neighbouring Libya.
Mr Ayari believes that arms and drugs traffickers now may cooperate with the small militant Islamist groups who control parts of the Tunisian-Algerian border. He also warns that it would be unwise for a simplistic official discourse on the “struggle against terrorism” to be manipulated for political ends.
As Libya continues unstable, questions are being raised about the ability of the Tunisian army to control the situation, should the instability spill over.
The authorities acknowledge that, if the threat represented by armed groups has so far been contained, the equipment available to the security forces needs to be upgraded fast, within Tunisia’s limited financial means. The United States this month speeded up the delivery of almost $2 million (Dh7.35m) worth of night goggles to aid operations “against terrorist organisations determined to destabilise Tunisia”, the US embassy website reported.
Sikorsky, the US manufacturer of Blackhawk advanced attack helicopters, looks set to supply 12 for $700m. Tunisia’s army is already using Boeing’s ScanEagle reconnaissance drones in its anti-terrorist operations, according to Jeune Afrique magazine.
All of which brings little immediate comfort to the inhabitants of the sparsely populated hillsides above Neber, where the national guard these days patrols only heavily armed, moving between sandbagged checkpoints. Householders — and restaurant owners — know that the wild boars who come down off the hillsides to forage for food are no longer the only possible night-time predators they need to fear.