Tunisia shepherd boy beheaded, cousin made to take head to family, causing anger in poor region

Tunisians praying before the burial of 16-year-old shepherd, Mabrouk Soltani, who was beheaded by jihadists.
Tunisians praying before the burial of 16-year-old shepherd, Mabrouk Soltani, who was beheaded by jihadists. PHOTO: AFP

TUNISIA (AFP) - The beheading of a young shepherd by militants has aroused anger and frustration in Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid where extremist violence has compounded the woes of an impoverished region.

Mabrouk Soltani, 16, was murdered as his sheep grazed on Mount Mghilla.

The killers ordered a cousin, 14-year-old Choukri who witnessed the murder, to take the head wrapped in plastic to the family, according to relatives and the Interior Ministry.

In the small village of Daouar Slatniya at the foot of the mountain, the family was horrified when the boy arrived, blood-soaked with his gruesome load.

They immediately called the security forces but were left all night to their own devices, according to the family.

"We called them at 5pm, only to be told: 'We're not coming up.' 'Why? Because you're scared?'" said Mabrouk's brother Mohamed Soltani, 20, in the account he gave local television broadcaster Nessma in a phone call.

"It's the first time in history that someone's head spends all night in the fridge and his body up on the mountain... Is that possible? Where's the police? Where's the army," he fumed.

The morning after the murder on Nov 13, relatives told AFP, the family themselves braved the dangers to find Mabrouk's torso, which they discovered circled by dogs.

Prime Minister Habib Essid has acknowledged the response was slow.

"We have taken the necessary measures, a bit late, that's true," he said on television in the face of public alarm.

Mabrouk was killed simply because he refused to hand over his flock to the militants and had no links to the security forces, the premier said.

Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigades, the Tunisian branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which last month warned civilians against passing on information to the security forces, denied its fighters were responsible for the shepherd's beheading.

Last weekend, the Tunisian army launched an operation on Mount Mghilla, killing at least one militant and losing a soldier.

And on Saturday, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli visited the site, only to be greeted by residents venting their fury at the prior absence of security forces and demanding they be armed to fend off the militants themselves.

Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has been hit by an upsurge in militant violence in which dozens of police and soldiers have been killed.

Fifty-nine foreign tourists have died this year in two attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Daouar Slatniya, the shepherd's murder has awoken a sense of abandonment in Sidi Bouzid, the same region where street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at police harassment and unemployment in December 2010, igniting the so-called Arab Spring risings.

Five years later, the threat of extremist violence has only added to the hardships of a region still faced with poverty and ever growing unemployment.

"We live outside history here, cut off from the world," said Imed, a 22-year-old cousin of Mabrouk.

Another young cousin, Nassim, gave a moving account of the daily grind.

"We eat plants and fetch water down from the mountain. But today with the terrorists, where am I going to go to drink? I'm either going to die of thirst, or of hunger or from terrorism," he said.

"Why did Mabrouk have to die? Because he lived off the mountain."