Why Tu­nisia’s Bardo has be­come a mu­seum of the macabre

Visi­tors to the Bardo Na­tional Mu­seum have dwin­dled since last year’s deadly at­tack that killed 22 peo­ple. But Tom West­cott finds that guides are now weav­ing de­tails of the trau­matic event into their tours

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One year af­ter ISIL ter­ror­ists at­tacked the Bardo Na­tional Mu­seum in Tu­nis killing 22 peo­ple and leav­ing more than 50 in­jured, the mu­seum’s huge, airy foyer is de­serted. Once one of Tu­nis’s prin­ci­pal tourist at­trac­tions, the mu­seum now at­tracts just a hand­ful of visi­tors each day, mainly lo­cal stu­dents and the few in­de­pen­dent tourists still trav­el­ling to a coun­try where two ter­ror­ist at­tacks tar­geted western­ers in the past year.

“There were 600 visi­tors here on the day of the at­tack,” says tour guide Rida. “Today, there have been maybe 18.”

Large tourist groups on day ex­cur­sions from Mediter­ranean cruise ships were par­tic­u­larly lu­cra­tive for tour guides, but buses packed with visi­tors are now a thing of the past, he says, point­ing to a hud­dle of six western­ers ad­mir­ing Ro­man mo­saics – the only group so far that week.

Since the at­tack on March 18 last year claimed by ISIL, the tourist ex­pe­ri­ence at the Bardo mu­seum has changed. Guides have adapted their talks to ac­com­mo­date visi­tors’ macabre in­ter­est in the event, weav­ing de­tails of the shoot­ing into Tu­nisia’s rich his­tory on which the mu­seum is founded. Ter­ror­ism has be­come part of the new tourism.

“Look here, these were the first shots fired inside the mu­seum,” says tour guide Mo­hamed, paus­ing on the stair­case that sweeps up to the sec­ond floor, boast­ing what he claims is one of the world’s largest col­lec­tions of in­tri­cate Ro­man mo­saics. The al­cove be­hind a sec­ond cen­tury statue of Apollo is scarred by the hap­haz­ard path of AK-47 bul­lets.

He leads visi­tors among Phoeni­cian arte­facts sur­rounded by or­nate Ot­toman dec­o­ra­tions, his voice echo­ing through the empty rooms. “Here on the up­per floor, was the res­i­dence of the Bey [the Ot­toman Em­pire’s Tu­nisian chief] and his wives,” he says. “Look at the many dec­o­ra­tions and the chan­de­liers from Italy. The Ot­tomans were fas­ci­nated by Ital­ian cul­ture and civil­i­sa­tion.”

Mo­hamed’s tim­bre changes as he steps into the in­ner­most part of the palace, once re­served for the Bey’s harem. “The ter­ror­ists shot many peo­ple here, in the Bey’s favourite rooms, which he kept for his wives,” Mo­hamed ex­plains. “It was al­ways the most pop­u­lar part of the mu­seum and, on that day, it was packed full of peo­ple.”

There are traces of gun­fire ev­ery­where – in wooden frames, win­dows, tiled walls and the still-shat­tered glass ex­hi­bi­tion cases. “The at­tack­ers looked like they were on drugs, when we watched the cam­era footage af­ter­wards,” Mo­hamed says. “They were walk­ing strangely and shoot­ing ev­ery­where, shoot­ing ran­domly, shoot­ing like they didn’t know how to kill peo­ple.”

Each guide has his own style and ap­proach. Rida is an­i­mated about the at­tack, point­ing out ev­ery bul­let hole, say­ing: “Ah, but you must see the exit holes. The bul­let goes in small but it causes much big­ger dam­age on the way out.”

And parts of his spiel are not for the faint-hearted. “Here is where the three Ja­panese tourists were shot, in one of the harem bed­rooms,” he ex­plains, point­ing out five bul­let holes in the far­thest wall.

“Look care­fully here, you can still see traces of the blood­stains.” One of the bed­rooms re­mains closed. In the thick dust coat­ing its empty ex­hi­bi­tion cases, visi­tors have writ­ten mes­sages of sym­pa­thy and re­mem­brance. Some are in Ja­panese. An­other sim­ply reads: “RIP to all.” Mo­hamed says the mu­seum au­thor­i­ties have de­cided, for the mo­ment, not to re­pair the bul­let holes in the walls and ex­hi­bi­tion cases. “We have left the dam­age like this be­cause the in­ci­dent is part of the mu­seum’s his­tory now. Even Tu­nisians were very shocked by what hap­pened and we need peo­ple to see the atroc­ity of the at­tack, not hide it.”

The situation for the mu­seum, like the whole tourist in­dus­try upon which Tu­nisia has heav­ily re­lied to shore up its mod­est econ­omy, is dire. Half-com­pleted ren­o­va­tions and a planned new ex­ten­sion have been shelved – per­haps viewed as a point­less ex­pense when there are so few visi­tors.

At the end of the tour, Mo­hamed walks visi­tors to the door, past new se­cu­rity sys­tems in­stalled af­ter the at­tack, to where a mo­saic plaque lists the names of those who died. Nearby, two elderly men hawk sil­ver-plated jewellery to any vis­i­tor leav­ing the mu­seum, grate­ful for the cheap­est pur­chase.

“Even a year af­ter the at­tack, the situation is the same. There are only very small num­bers of visi­tors com­ing to the mu­seum,” Mo­hamed says. “Even though Tu­nisia is quite se­cure, the big prob­lem now is Libya, and for­eign­ers are afraid to come here be­cause of the war in our neigh­bour­ing coun­try.”

He claims that, if Libya be­came more sta­ble and se­cure, tourists would re­turn. But spo­radic in­ci­dents in Tu­nisia con­tinue, with an ISIL at­tack near the Libyan bor­der on March 7, which left 55 dead. Al­though Tu­nisia is still praised in­ter­na­tion­ally as the suc­cess story of the Arab Spring, for those whose liveli­hoods rely on tourism, the situation has never been worse.

Tom West­cott is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who re­ports from North Africa.

Fethi Be­laid / AFP

A tourist looks at a bul­let hole in a sculp­ture cas­ing at the Bardo Na­tional Mu­seum in Tu­nis. Vis­i­tor num­bers to the coun­try have slumped since the ISIL ter­ror­ist at­tack on March 18 last year.

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