Last residents hold on in Tunisia’s underground houses

Saliha Mohamedi, 36, says she is comfortable in her house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips. (Reuters)
Updated 24 February 2018
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Last residents hold on in Tunisia’s underground houses

MATMATA, Tunisia: In the arid valleys of southern Tunisia’s Djebel Dahar region, people have lived for centuries in underground houses whose earthen casing provides protection against searing summer heat and winter winds.
But in recent decades, rural depopulation has meant fewer people live in the homes, which are composed of rooms hewn into the walls of an excavated circular courtyard. The few remaining families say they are attached to the homes and the land or see no way of moving.
“My father died, my mother died, the girls got married and I was left alone. They all went to lead their own lives,” said Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, who lives in a five-room troglodyte home in the village of Tijma. “If I leave then the house will be gone.”

Olive groves
The homes are concentrated around Matmata, which lies in a cratered landscape dotted with palm trees and olive groves about 365 km south of Tunis.
They are highly unusual, though similar constructions are found across the border in Libya, to the southeast. In other parts of the Djebel Dahar, houses and storerooms were carved from rock and earth above ground.
Many families left the underground houses when new towns and villages were built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a modernization drive by President Habib Bourguiba.
Locals suspect Bourguiba wanted to dilute Berber communities as he strove to integrate them into the Arab nation after independence from France.
Disputes over inheritance and periods of drought or heavy rain, which can cause the houses to collapse, also contributed to the rural exodus.
Some built modern houses on adjoining land, using the traditional homes as stables or workshops.
Residents live largely off olive farming and tourism. Matmata became a popular destination after a troglodyte home converted into a hotel was used as a Star Wars set in the 1970s.
But tourism across Tunisia is still recovering from a sharp decline after the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising and major attacks targeting tourists in Tunis and Sousse in 2015.
“Before the revolution there was tourism. Since then there’s not been much, just some Tunisians who come on days off or holidays,” said Saliha Mohamedi, 36.
She says she is comfortable in the house, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips.
“If I got another house I would give it to (my children). This is where we have passed our lives,” she said.
Hedi Ali Kayel, 65, who runs a small shop in the village of Haddej, is one of the last people in the area who knows how to build and maintain the houses. The last new house he dug was in the 1970s.
Now he is fighting a lonely battle to save the ones that still exist. “Every time there’s rain I come and repair them,” he says. “I don’t let them go.”


In Iraq, Angelina Jolie calls for focus on conflict prevention

Updated 20 June 2018
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In Iraq, Angelina Jolie calls for focus on conflict prevention

  • “I hope that we can find the strength to find a better way forward together," she said
  • This was Jolie’s third visit to the camp as UNHCR special envoy

IRBIL: Hollywood star Angelina Jolie called Sunday for a larger focus on conflict prevention rather than responding to its repercussions, during a visit to Iraq with the UN refugee agency.
“I hope that we can find the strength to find a better way forward together: so that we move into a new era of preventing conflict and reducing instability, rather than simply struggling to deal with its consequences,” Jolie told a news conference at the Domiz refugee camp in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
It was Jolie’s third visit to the camp as UNHCR special envoy, after previous visits in 2012 and 2016.
The Domiz camp opened in 2011 and is home to 40,000 Syrian refugees who fled the seven-year civil war across the border.
“When UNHCR’s Syria response was only 50 percent funded last year, and this year it is only 17 percent funded, there are terrible human consequences,” Jolie said.
“We should be under no illusion about this,” she added.
Late last month, the UN made an “urgent and critical” appeal for donations to its main budget for Syrian refugees after contributions pledged in April failed to trickle in.
“When there is not even the bare minimum of aid, refugee families cannot receive adequate medical treatment, women and girls are left vulnerable to sexual violence, many children cannot go to school, and we squander the opportunity of being able to invest in refugees so that they can acquire new skills and support their families,” she said.
Her visit coincided with the third day of Eid Al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On Saturday, Jolie visited western Mosul, held by Daesh terrorists for nearly three years until they were pushed out by Iraqi forces last summer.
During her visit, she walked through Mosul’s destroyed Old City, met with displaced families and spoke about reconstruction.
“This is the worst devastation I have seen in all my years with UNHCR,” Jolie said.
“It is deeply upsetting that people who have endured unparallelled brutality have so little as they try, somehow, to rebuild the lives they once had.”
The visit marked Jolie’s 61st mission — and fifth to Iraq — with the UN refugee agency since 2001.