Jordan's King Abdullah leads a nation’s grief

Civil defense members work to find survivors after rain storms unleashed flash floods near the Dead Sea in Jordan on Friday. Inset top: The Jordanian flag flies half-mast as a mark of respect for those killed. (Reuters)
Updated 26 October 2018

Jordan's King Abdullah leads a nation’s grief

  • For many families there was no end to the grief, but they continued to live in hope that their loved ones would be found alive, as the search continued

AMMAN: Laughing, chattering, happy and excited, the children from Victoria College in Amman piled onto their school bus, ready for the outing they had been looking forward to all week. The plan was for a trip to Wadi Zarqa Maein, a heritage site of rock formations and thermal springs next to the Dead Sea, about 40km southwest of the Jordanian capital.
The children, seventh and eighth graders aged from about 11 to 14, spoke of the lunchtime picnic they would enjoy on Thursday among the rock pools and the reed beds. Instead, a freak rainstorm created a flash flood in the wadi and at least 21 children and teachers were swept to their deaths.
Twenty-four hours later, Jordan was still in a state of shock — combined with widespread anger and frustration that such a tragedy could have been allowed to occur.
“My grief and pain is beyond description, and it is only equal to my anger at those who failed to take measures that could have prevented this painful incident,” King Abdullah said.
“I offer condolences to myself and to Jordan for the loss of my Jordanian family. The suffering of every father, mother and family caused by this incident is my suffering.”
The Royal Hashemite Court ordered the lowering of the Jordanian flag to half-mast as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives.
Among the families of the children caught up in the flood, the grief was palpable. Ali Rahoumi, an Iraqi resident, broke down in tears when he was told that his only son was among those missing. Rahoumi lost his wife a month ago, he told Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, who was trying to comfort him.
For many families there was no end to the grief, but they continued to live in hope that their loved ones would be found alive, as the search continued.
Mystery surrounds why the school trip went ahead at all, at a time of year when the weather in Jordan can be dangerous and unpredictable. Over the past week, the Jordan Meteorological Department’s daily weather forecasts warned of poor conditions, including heavy rain and dust that was expected to blanket most of the country, and urged people to take precautions. Thursday’s tragedy suggests that no one was paying attention.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the Jordanian government attempted to apportion blame for the tragedy to the school, for planning a trip to a non-approved destination.

Ill-fated trip
The school had approval for a trip to Al-Azraq, an eco-tourism destination in Jordan’s eastern desert, not to the Dead Sea, Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat said. “It is clear that there is a violation; the school that organized the trip did not abide by public-safety regulations which stipulate that students must not swim and must be kept away from waterways,” she said.
However, a document made available to Arab News showed that the permission issued by the relevant ministry indicated that the school had adhered to the approved route.
Nevertheless, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mubarak Abu Yamin said the government would hold the school accountable, administratively and criminally.
“We have already started our internal investigation, in coordination and cooperation with the attorney general’s office, to determine the responsibility and to identify causes and reasons that lead to this catastrophe,” he said. “We will make sure the rule of the law is observed and implemented.”
The Ministry of Education has launched a full-scale investigation into the incident, spokesman Walid Al-Jallad said, and the ministry was keen to cooperate fully with all concerned parties.
Civil engineer Maysarah Malas told Arab News on Friday that the school had to shoulder the responsibility for organizing a school trip despite a weather warning notice issued by the Jordan Meteorological Department.
However, he said: “Blaming the school management does not relieve the ministry or the minister himself from responsibility. The weather had started to deteriorate in the early hours of the day. The minister should have issued instructions to all schools to cancel any plans for school trips, but he did not.”


Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

Updated 18 October 2019

Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

  • Despite vote for change in the country, there seems to be no end of frustration among young people

SFAX/TUNISIA: It only took 10 minutes for Fakher Hmidi to slip out of his house, past the cafes where unemployed men spend their days, and reach the creek through the mud flats where a small boat would ferry him to the migrant ship heading from Tunisia to Italy.

He left late at night, and the first his parents knew of it was the panicked, crying phone call from an Italian mobile number: “The boat is sinking. We’re in danger. Ask mum to forgive me.”

Hmidi, 18, was one of several people from his Thina district of the eastern city of Sfax among the dozens still unaccounted for in this month’s capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, as ever more Tunisians join the migrant trail to Europe.

His loss, and the continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the same dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

In a parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, the day before Hmidi’s boat sank just short of the Italian coast, no party won even a quarter of seats and many independents were elected instead. On Sunday, the political outsider Kais Saied was elected president.

In the Hmidis’ modest home, whose purchase was subsidized by the government and on which the family is struggling to meet the repayment schedule, his parents sit torn with grief.

“Young people here are so frustrated. There are no jobs. They have nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink coffee or buy drugs,” said Fakher’s father, Mokhtar, 55.

Mokhtar lost his job as a driver two years ago and has not been able to find work since. Fakher’s mother, Zakia, sells brik, a fried Tunisian egg snack, to bring in a little extra money. His two elder sisters, Sondes, 29, and Nahed, 24, work in a clothes shop.

Much of the little they had went to Fakher, the family said, because they knew he was tempted by the idea of going to Europe. At night the family would sit on their roof and see the smuggler boats setting off. The seashore was “like a bus station,” they said.

 

Decline

At a cafe near the Hmidis’ home, a few dozen mostly young men sat at tables, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Mongi Krim, 27, said he would take the next boat to Europe if he could find enough money to pay for the trip even though, he said, he has lost friends at sea.

A survey by the Arab Barometer, a research network, said a third of all Tunisians, and more than half of young people, were considering emigrating, up by 50 percent since the 2011 revolution.

The aid agency Mercy Corps said last year that a new surge of migration from Tunisia began in 2017, a time when the economy was dipping.

Krim is unemployed but occasionally finds a day or week of work as a casual laborer. He points at the potholes on the road and says even town infrastructure has declined.

For this and the lack of jobs, he blames the government. He did not vote in either the parliamentary or the presidential election. “Why would I? It is all the same. There is no change,” he said.

Unemployment is higher among young people than anyone else in Tunisia. In the first round of the presidential election on Sept. 15, and in the parliamentary election, in which voter turnout was low, they also abstained by the highest margin.

When an apparently anti-establishment candidate, Kais Saied, went through to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, young people backed him overwhelmingly.

But their support for a candidate touting a clear break from normal post-revolutionary politics only underscored their frustration at the direction Tunisia took under past leaders.

At the table next to Krim, Haddaj Fethi, 32, showed the inky finger that proved he had voted on Sunday. “I cannot imagine a young man who would not have voted for Saied,” he said.

On the bare patch of mud by the creek where Fakher Hmidi took the boat, some boys were playing. For them, the migration to Europe is — as it was for Hmidi — a constant background possibility in a country that offers them few other paths.

SPEEDREAD

The continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

At the time of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, they had great hope, Mohkhtar Hmidi said. But economically, things got worse. Fakher found little hope in politics, he said.

Despite the apparent surge of young support for Saied as president, he has been careful to make no promises about what Tunisia’s future holds, only to pledge his personal probity and insist that he will rigidly uphold the law.

The economy is in any case not the president’s responsibility, but that of a government formed by parties in the Parliament, whose fractured nature will make coalition building particularly difficult this year.

Any government that does emerge will face the same dilemmas as its predecessors — tackling high unemployment, high inflation, a lower dinar and the competing demands of powerful unions and foreign lenders.

An improvement would come too late for the Hmidi family, still waiting nearly two weeks later for confirmation that their only son has drowned.

“Fakher told me he wanted to go to France. ‘This is my dream,’ he said to me. ‘There is no future here. You can’t find a job. How can I?’,” Mokhtar said, and his wife started to cry.