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World Summit blog: Buses, toilets and fear

The flipside of an authoritarian government

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WSIS Tunis Was there ever a more evil form of transport than a bus? They are so convincing. You can carry a lot of people and they can go wherever you want. Trains and trams are on tracks, cars are too small and cramped.

But don't be fooled. Having lots of people means lots of stopping as each person tries to save themselves those vital two minutes, while extending everyone else's life by three. And the fact that they're not on tracks means they can wander off any old direction. It also means, for some strange reason, that you can't really complain if they don't run according to the timetable.

I'm not sure what the French or the Arabic is for "timetable" but I have a sneaking suspicion the Tunisians have a separate word for it all to themselves. The cast-iron guarantee for this World Summit was that there would be a bus at least every half-hour all day, all night from all the main hotels direct to the Kram conference centre and back again.

No-one at my hotel had even heard of an official summit bus the first morning I tried to get to the Kram. That evening, however, I was assured that there would be a bus at 9am, 10am, 11am and so on all day. At 9.23am, I took a taxi.

That night, a timetable appeared. There would be buses at 7.11am, 8.11am, 9.11am and so on. The precision fooled alot of people. Why? Because they forgot it was a bus and not a train. I decide to ignore the whole thing and sure enough at 8.23am the next morning there was a dozen people waiting like monkeys for the bus. But - lo and behold - as I was walking to catch a taxi, it actually appeared and I flagged it down. It was the 8.26 bus.

The next morning - sorry about this, but you simply cannot get within a mile of the Kram centre without being in one of these things, so in summit-world they are an essential if unfortunate obsession - the next morning, I was amazed to actually find a bus in the hotel courtyard waiting.

It was 6.50am. Are you leaving soon? I asked. Sept heures et demi, was the answer - 7.30am. I decided to get a cab again. But what's this? As soon as I walked out the gates, another bus appeared. Are you leaving now? I asked. Huit heures moins quart- 7.45am. I tell him there is already a bus in the courtyard. Turns out there is a bus at 7.15am, 7.30am and 7.45am. Where is the 7.15am bus, I ask. He has no idea. He is the 7.45am bus.

The good thing about these buses though is that you can ignore them and catch a cab. On the way out of the conference centre however, the bus (navette) is the only way to get home, leading to the most monumental cock-ups I've seen since British Rail circa 1984. One bus, full of people, I am told, was held up for 35 minutes because it couldn't get past another bus in front of it, waiting for its time to leave. It simply never occurred to either bus driver to come up with a temporary compromise.

But even when you are under way, the admirable Tunisian sense of hospitality works against you. They simply will not drop you off outside hotels and make you walk to the door - they insist on driving you to the door. Unfortunately, hotel courtyards are not made for buses, plus security guards have every gate closed as you arrive. The result is endless to-ing and for-ing as three-point turns turn into eight-point turns. The other result is that it takes you an hour and 10 minutes to get back to your hotel when it is a 10-minute drive away.

But, of course, life never lets you just hate one thing. No, last night, I left the Kram centre late again and my bus - No.2 Tunis Nord - was already there. Not only that but the bus driver knew his route. Not only that but after five minutes and no-one having arrived, I got an entire bus all to myself and was taken directly to my hotel in record time. It was the best bus service I have ever experienced.

The hose of death

Which is more than I can say for the toilets.

Now I know that the tradition in many countries is, after a healthy bowel movement, to clean yourself with your hand and then wash your hand with water. I understand the logic and the culture behind. In fact, in an abstract sense, I even like the idea.

The trouble comes when you are confronted with this and no other option. Until today, the Tunisians had only catered for Western toilet-roll tastes in certain toilets in the conference centre. Up until today, I could have told you which ones, down to the cubicle, they were. Instead, in the more local versions, there is a hose attached to the wall with its own tap to clean yourself.

Having only a basic understanding of how this might work - and with no helpful diagrams on the back of the cubicle door - I decided to let the whole learning process go and relocate to one of the "safe" toilets. What I really needed was the same set-up in my hotel room so I could learn from experience when no one else was looking.

But what had never occurred to me was the side-effects of this process of cleaning. The most striking is that the floor of every toilet is sopping wet. So if you have your bag with you, or if your clothing falls too low, it soaks up the hose water like a sponge. Not only that but the lid has to be wiped dry every time. And then when you are finally sat on the lavatory, it suddenly strikes you that the hose may have blasted very small amounts of other people's unwanted waste products all over the place.

What I'm saying is, that going for a number two in Tunisia is not an entirely satisfactory process.

You thought that was bad?

And talking of fear, I must confess I had a dose of the real stuff this week. The same day I learnt a French journalist covering human rights problem had been stabbed and beaten up in Tunis by what were said to be Tunisian security services, I heard of another incident at the German cultural institute.

Around 30 people from local and international organisations under the broad banner of human rights had arranged to meet there to discuss what to do with their "Citizen Summit" - an alternative summit for those groups not allowed to participate in the real summit by the Tunisian authorities.

It turned nasty and plainclothes police - lots of them - manhandled, bundled, grabbed and pushed them about despite the existence of the German ambassador to the UN and a number of official summit participants, all of whom have immunity under United Nations rules. The matter was rapidly turning into a diplomatic incident and, of course, it was an important story.

Naturally I set out to find out all I could and write about it. Only once I'd spoken to a few eye-witnesses did it occur to me that I was in a country that has a noted record of arresting and torturing journalists who embarrass or criticise the government. Just two nights earlier, it would appear that a French journalist had been dealt the same sort of treatment.

The Guardian had agreed to the story and it occurred to me that having been in the country for only four days I was pitting myself squarely against a known repressive regime with absolutely no back-up. A regime that also had my passport number, a picture of me, my hotel, and literally hundreds of secret policemen all in town for the summit.

If I was a foreign correspondent, or if it was England - or even if it was France or Germany - the thought would never have occurred to me, but suddenly, faced with the probabilities, the bonus of having a byline on one story in one country that you may never even visit again had to be balanced against the risk of a Tunisian jail or hospital.

I asked the Guardian to run a "From our correspondent in Tunis" byline as a default while I tracked down and asked diplomats and embassy staff about the real risk. But the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got. When I found someone with real experience of such matters who told me the risk, in reality, in Tunis, while the Summit was going on, was not significant, it was all the excuse I needed.

It's pathetic, I know, but then I also know that the vast majority of muggings, thefts and attacks could be avoided with some careful forethought. I won't deny even now though that with the story finally printed under my own name, I am on my guard.

And that is precisely, exactly, why such abuses when they do happen need to be reported.

I had a good chat with a Tunisian journalist yesterday about this whole thought process I'd been through. He looked at me as if to say "ah bless". We both roared with laughter. Dark humour is always the best.

Power of the blog

I mentioned in an earlier blog how the Tunisian authorities were underpaying UN staff in non-transferable Tunisian dinars.

Well if would seem that the authorities are monitoring my every move after all and are so struck dumb with fear when faced by the mighty Englishman's blog, that they have coughed up the full amount to all UN staff and not only that but provided them all with a certificate that will let them exchange the dinars for another unrestricted currency (euros being quite a good bet).

Power of the press and all that. I am now composing a treatise on world poverty and bad haircuts which I will post tomorrow and helpfully ride the world of these two evil tyrannies by Thursday week. Smashing.


More of Kieren's semi-conscious musings can be found at www.kierenmccarthy.co.uk

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