Note: The following interview was conducted on January 21st, 2011 by PolicyMic's Editorial Board with Contributing Writer David Dietz. Dietz has been living and working in Tunisia, outside of the country's capital Tunis, and providing PolicyMic with up-to-date coverage of the situation on the ground during the country's historic Jasmine Revolution. He has since temporarily left the country for safety reasons. PolicyMic caught up with Dietz and asked him about the experience of living in Tunisia during the revolution, tending to his friend who got shot, and watching as his apartment complex got ransacked by looters.
PolicyMic (PM): Talk about the experience of witnessing an Arab revolution as an American living in Tunisia. What kinds of emotions did you feel as you watched the scene unfold?
David Dietz (DD): Having lived there and known many Tunisians, it was intoxicatingly exciting. The larger the protests, the more I wanted to participate. I have great empathy for the Tunisian people and what they went through and lived under. At the same time, this was not my movement. I was not involved and I knew that I needed to keep it that way. There were times that were very scary. But, otherwise, the mood had an exciting and revolutionary feel about it – people whispering, rumors flying, and a nervous energy throughout the city.
PM: Your family must have been worried sick about you. How did you communicate with people back home?
DD: Whenever we hear about dangerous situations or natural disasters that have occurred, our typical response is to make sure that the people we know living in those places are fine. We want to show genuine concern, but in the back of our minds, there is that subconscious thought that, ‘It’s a big country or city, I am sure he or she is fine,” (Especially for something like a revolution, where a foreigner wouldn’t be targeted). So it was funny watching the reactions of the people I know as the media started covering Tunisia and I started writing updates on PolicyMic. Suddenly, people read and hear that my friend has been shot and my apartment complex ransacked, and the emails change from, ”I heard about Tunisia, be safe,” to “OMG OMG! Are you OK? Send me an update now!!”
I am not trying to be condescending because I would have done the same and, in reality, people’s emails have been incredibly caring and heartfelt. But, I did get a kick out of how quickly the tone changed. Given that I was stuck in my apartment for 23 hours a day, they served as good support and distraction as well. As for communicating, Tunisia has advanced Internet (better than in some parts of the U.S., sadly). I had an Internet key (USB stick), so I was able to communicate with people the entire time.
PM: Your friend get shot? Talk about that experience.
DD: I was actually on the phone with our mutual friend who was out in the protests searching for him when she started screaming that he had been shot. That was when the seriousness of it all really sank in. My first thought was trying to figure out how to get to him, but we couldn’t – the police had blocked off the streets and tear gas was everywhere. Fortunately, some brave and selfless Tunisians were able to get him to the hospital and make sure he was treated. I tried very hard not to panic but there is nothing more frightening then being unable to reach someone when you know they are hurt, especially when you don’t know how serious it is. That first night was incredibly long and stressful. The next day, he was released and moved over to my place. The incredible thing was that he never let us see his pain or fear, and he never complained. If I had been shot in the upper thigh, I would have milked it for months and had friends make me food until April. Overall though, it was definitely a scary experience.
PM: Your apartment complex was ransacked by looters? At what point, if ever, did you begin to feel unsafe in your surroundings?
DD: Right then. It was less scary to be stuck in protests with police firing tear gas indiscriminately because in the back of my mind I trusted my ability to run and get out. When my apartment complex was being ransacked and looters were coming up our stairwell, I felt absolutely helpless. There was nowhere we could go. If they had managed to break down our door, our only escape would have been to fight our way out. Given they had clubs and possibly guns to our blunt kitchen knives, the odds didn’t seem very high, especially considering that my friend had just been shot in the leg. After this happened, I no longer felt safe and moved to a new apartment. It was a much safer neighborhood, but the nightly sounds of automatic gunfire and helicopters swooping low didn’t do much to calm my rattled nerves.
PM: What was the U.S. Embassy’s response to the revolution?
DD: Everyone I talked to agrees that the American embassy’s response was too little, too late. I have friends studying abroad in Cairo who received emails 3 weeks ago (when the protests first broke) warning them to be extra cautious in light of the recent Tunisian protests. Here in Tunisia – the actual country in which the revolts were happening – we received our first email from the embassy 3 days after the revolution had taken place, offering a plane to take citizens to Rabat.
The embassy’s draw-down plan was also less than stellar. First, they told us we had to get to the Embassy ourselves, as reports were circulating that it was in an area of heavy gunfire. Second, we would have to pay the embassy back if we agreed to go and could only take one bag. Third, the plane was to Rabat, which is not exactly a convenient place to go (or travel from once your there) and on top of this, the email address they provided to RSVP was incorrect.
Another incident also upset me. Panicked by the looters and gangs in our stairwell who had just ransacked our apartment complex, I called the embassy for advice and help. While I realize that the embassy cannot interfere in the affairs of another state, their job is to serve and protect American citizens living abroad. We desperately asked the embassy to send Marines, or at least call in the Tunisian army to disperse the rioters, so we could get out safely. Instead, the embassy staff member advised me to stay put and wait it out. There were 5 Americans in that apartment. We are lucky that I have a strong apartment door.
PM: What are the biggest challenges of doing crisis reporting in a conflict zone? Is it possible to remain accurate, truthful, and objective?
DD: The biggest challenge is that I am not a professional reporter with recognized press passes, nor did I have the ability to set up interviews or talk with high-ranking officials. Therefore, I could only report on what I could see from my balcony, what I could see in the hour or so that I walked around each day, or what friends told me. The advantage of living in Tunis and not just having flown in for this event, however, was that I knew a lot of the locals who constantly shared updates with me over Facebook or SMS text message. I learned quickly whose stories were accurate, as opposed to who liked to embellish their accounts a bit more. Before I wrote anything, I tried, at the very least, to double check with somebody else, but even still, rumors were circulating like crazy. Overall, I feel like I did a good job of accurately portraying what it was like. I had two advantages that professional journalists didn’t. One was that the chaos was literally at my door-step, and the other was that I had friends all over the city, including some who had apartments right above the scenes of the biggest protests. These factors helped me describe what was happening through the eyes of Tunisians, and not the Western media.
Another difficulty that I hope to improve upon, with time, is the challenge of writing live updates as the news constantly changes. I had to scrap so many reports because within the hour, they were no longer relevant or precise. In a way you have to predict what’s coming next. It took me a while and a lot of useless pages to figure that out.
PM: It’s not everyday that a young American gets thrust in the midst of a conflict zone. Do you have any advice for others who might find themselves in a similar situation?
DD: My advice is to make sure you have lots of money on your phone, an Internet key, and a well-stocked fridge. Once the conflict starts, everything shuts down and you don’t know when you can leave your apartment. Most importantly though, after seeing a friend get shot, I would strongly advise against joining in, or trying to take pictures of, riots. Yes, the odds of being injured may seem miniscule and sure the pictures are tempting and serve as great memories, but riots can also be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As they did when my friend was shot, they can jump streets and whole neighborhoods in a matter of minutes. My friend was singled out and targeted because he had a camera around his neck. As you can see, his pictures are indeed remarkable and do capture the essence of the revolution, but because of them he will spend the next 3 weeks struggling to get off the couch.
That being said, I am sure being able to sell some of his pictures will help speed up his recovery, so if you are interested, please let us know.
PM: You’re not a full-time journalist. But, you have been providing regular coverage of events on the ground. Has this experience changed your future goals or inspired you to pursue a course in journalism?
DD: Oh absolutely. This past summer I started writing for both stampedeblue.com - the main Colt’s football blog – and PolicyMic and have found my calling. Covering the revolution only solidified that feeling. I love to write and hope I have captured the essence of the movement in my updates. I’ve joked with friends that it’s a bit easier writing from a war zone safely settled in the Sheraton hotel with an experienced driver and handler, so if PolicyMic wants to foot the bill I would be happy to prepare my bags for Egypt, Jordan, or Algeria.
In all seriousness, I have been very fortunate to be in Tunisia to cover this for PolicyMic, and as a student of the politics of the Middle East, I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be a first-hand witness to such a historic event. It was also very special to be able to talk with, and count on, so many Tunisians who constantly reassured me that I was never a target and that I was always welcome in their beautiful and now liberated country.
Photo Credit: David Dietz