Tunisia

Antiquities found in homes of deposed Tunisian president’s family

According to museum officials, Leila Ben Ali used artefacts, including mosaics and frescoes, to decorate the family villas

A news clip from Al Arabiya reveals ancient statues perched next to the swimming pool in the oceanfront villa of Ben Ali's daughter, Sakhr El Matri

Tunis. Artefacts and antiquities from Tunisia's major museums have been found in the recently abandonned homes of deposed autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali following the political uprising in the north African country.

Ben Ali and his family fled Tunisia on 14 January after street demonstrations against his 23-year autocratic rule ripped through the country. They have subsequently sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Just prior to their departure, Ben Ali's wife, Leila, is reported to have taken one and a half tonnes of gold, valued at $56m. Representatives of the country's central bank have denied its removal.

The European Union voted to freeze the assets of the ousted Ben Ali. The uprising, dubbed the Jasmine Revolution, was sparked by a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after authorities confiscated his produce. He has since died from his wounds.

Many of the artefacts and antiquities confiscated by the Ben Alis originally came from the Bardo Museum, which has the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics. According to Samir Aounallah, the Tunisian museums committee president, Leila Ben Ali used museum artefacts, including mosaics and frescoes, to decorate the family's villas.

Archaeological sites have also been affected. “I have accredited sources that have said sites in Cap Bon had objects taken from them by the Ben Ali clan,” said Aounallah. Although the director was not sure whether these pieces had been returned to their rightful owners, he did point out that a significant amount of “objects found in the villas of the Ben Ali clan have now been put back in their rightful collections.”

According to Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), several international archaeologists and curators are currently in Tunisia surveying potential damage to objects as well as drawing up revised inventories for the country's museums. Despite the violence, which according to a United Nations mission saw 219 people killed and 510 injured, museums have for the most part remained well protected. “People there are very understanding of the importance of the preservation of these museums,” said Anfruns.

In 2010, ICOM initiated a training program for the north Africa region that aims to teach locals how to protect institutions in emergency situations, improve capacity building for museums as well as how to curb the illicit trafficking of art. The first such session took place in Tunisia last year. Although Anfruns maintained that ICOM remains “very cautious” about the political situation in Tunisia, the 2011 edition of the program has not yet been cancelled.

Evidence of pillaging by the Ben Alis has been well documented on several news channels, including one segment that aired on the Middle East-based Al Arabiya in January. The clip shows the home of Ben Ali's daughter, Sakhr El Matri, revealing antiquities and ancient statues perched in the foyer and next to the swimming pool of her oceanfront villa. In the aftermath of the uprising, crowds reportedly descended upon several of the Ben Ali houses to tour the premises. A handful of the sprawling properties' walls were tagged with graffiti including one that read: "This property is now a national museum for the Tunisian people."

During the uprising several artists staged protests. One demonstration on 11 January was violently disbanded by the police, said Tunisia-based artist and eyewitness to the event, Olfa Jegham. On 17 January several artists created the “collective of free artists”. According to Jegham, the collective meets regularly “to address the importance of culture and freedom of expression.” Prior to Ben Ali's exile, laws in the country forbade the public gathering of more than 10 people at a time. Censorship was also widely prevalent under his rule. “We suffered repression in various forms,” said Jegham. “It took a young Tunisian to kill himself in an expression of his opposition to the former regime to have the people open their eyes and furiously demand their rights for a true democracy.”

While the protests raged, nearly all contemporary art galleries in the capital were closed. They have since reopened, said Lilia Ben Salah, the owner of the Tunisian Galerie El Marsa. While normal life is returnig to Tunisia, Ben Salah said she hopes “the art community will seize on this new era in order to make real change.” Adding: “We have to act fast to be able to preserve what we just acquired. We do not want to lose this.”

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