Aberystwyth graduate reveals their experience of Tunisian attack

ON 26th JUNE 2015, 38 tourists were killed after a gunman opened fire at a Tunisian beach hotel – using a gun he had disguised as a parasol. The attack took place in the resort of Port El Kantaoui, just North of Sousse, at the Hotel Rui Imperial Marhaba.

30 of the tourists killed were British, other victims include those from Germany and Belgium, and most had been staying at the Hotel Marhaba or the neighbouring Hotel Rui Bellevue Park.

View from a balcony at Bellevue Park. Credit: Aimee Alcock

View from a balcony at Bellevue Park. Credit: Aimee Alcock

The gunman was confirmed to be a Tunisian student called Seifeddine Rezgui, who had no previous record and was not known to the security services, and the Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack.

According to witnesses, Rezgui unveiled a Kalashnikov from underneath a parasol and made his way up the beach towards the swimming pool complex firing at tourists, before then making his way through the hotel reception and escaping towards the neighbouring Hotel Bellevue Park – where reports suggest shots were also fired. It’s reported that the attack lasted for approximately 30 minutes before Rezgui was shot dead by police in the street outside the neighbouring hotel.

8 people have been arrested in connection to the attacks on suspicion of collaborating with Seifeddine Rezgui.

Security forces have been criticised for their slow response to the attack, which the Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Eddid puts down to the country not having a “culture of terrorism”.

Aber Graduates among holidaymakers

Amongst the holidaymakers in Sousse was Aberystwyth University graduate Aimee Alcock and her partner, who were both staying at Bellevue Park. Aimee Alcock studied Physical Geography, and graduated from Aberystwyth University in 2014 – whilst her partner, who also attended Aberystwyth University, is set to graduate this year.

Alcock and her partner arrived in Tunisia on the evening of Thursday 25th June 2015, looking forward to a “new experience” following their stay in Hammamet the previous year.

The pool area at Bellevue Park. Credit: Aimee Alcock

The pool area at Bellevue Park. Credit: Aimee Alcock

On the morning of Friday 26th June, Miss Alcock said that her partner and herself both went out to the pool around 11:30am local time. After settling down by the pool, she said that they could hear what they thought to be fireworks followed by silence. It wasn’t until “a rush of people” ran towards the entrance of the hotel via the pool area that they realised the “fireworks” was actually gunfire – which had since started up again.

Miss Alcock and her partner were still at this point unsure of what was going on. She said, “My thoughts at this time were that it was an exchange of fire between two groups of people and not that tourists, like myself, were the targets.”

Whilst gathering in the hotel lobby with other tourists from the beach and swimming pool, she overheard talk of a man “spraying” bullets on the beach and that sunbathers and people on the beach were his targets.

Shortly afterwards Aimee Alcock and her partner went back to their hotel room, where they could still hear the gunfire. They then went onto the balcony to see if they could see what was going on. Miss Alcock describes seeing a group of men running around on the beach, but saw nothing else. Moments after going on the balcony Miss Alcock describes hearing an explosion in the hotel next door, reports suggest that a grenade had been detonated in the hotel reception of the Marahaba.

She remembers beginning to get emotional at this point, saying that “at this point I really thought we were going to be bombed”, and messaged friends and family to let them know what was happening in case they had seen anything on the news.

She recounts hearing increased gunfire 30 minutes after it first started and assumed that the police had by this point arrived, and then it fell silent. After it fell silent she went onto the balcony and saw people carrying two injured tourists around to the back of the Marahaba, later she remembers thinking that these two injured people were the only people who had been hurt in the attack.

A view of the Marhaba from the neighbouring Bellevue Park. Credit Aimee Alcock

A view of the Marhaba from the neighbouring Bellevue Park. Credit Aimee Alcock

Miss Alcock, and those in the lobby of the Bellevue Park hotel, received information about what had happened from the hotel manager and were informed that the “terrorist” had been shot and killed – the beach was also designated an unsafe zone.

By the evening of the 26th June Aimee and her partner were still unaware of what had exactly happened during the day, and decided to not go back to the airport on one of the buses that had been arranged. However, it soon became clear what had happened after talking to people waiting for the buses, who had witnessed the attack, she recalls “feeling sick” after a man broke down retelling what he had seen. That night Aimee and her partner both decided that they wanted to leave, but to avoid the rush they would wait until the next morning.

It was only through talking to her mum and friends back in the UK that Aimee and her partner found out any concrete information about what had happened, and it was then that they realised the severity of the attack and just how many had lost their lives.

“How could we enjoy our holiday when this had happened a stones throw away from where we would be sitting around the pool? We just wanted to go home.”

Miss Alcock recalled the atmosphere around the hotel on the Friday night after most the guests had left, describing it as “empty” following initial panic as everyone wanted to leave.

“After about 90% of the hotel guests left there was a very quiet, solemn feel around the hotel. It was so empty. There couldn’t have been more than 50-100 of us left.” She recalled there being a singer in the lobby on Sunday evening. “It honestly felt like a wake. It was so sad. Just people sat around, waiting for the news that they could leave.”

She had nothing but praise for the hotel staff saying that they were “beyond amazing”, noting their courage and bravery in running towards the beach when everyone else was running away and risking their lives for people they didn’t know.

After attending the memorial at the beach on Sunday, an experience she described as “surreal”, she stated that she now realises “just how precious and short life is.”

However, it wasn’t until she got back to the UK on the Monday morning that “the reality of what happened started to sink in.” She said:

“That could have been me. I’m so sad for them [the victims] and their families. I can’t imagine how they are feeling right now. You just don’t expect something like this to happen whilst you’re on holiday.”

What does this mean for Tunisia?

Following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 Tunisia has been hailed as a model of democratic transition, and has escaped the worst of the region’s violence. Despite apparent harmony between secular and religious parties in government and across the country, an al-Jazeera correspondent recently stated that: “There are a minority of Tunisians who want a so-called Islamic state here. Thousands of young Tunisians are fighting for armed groups abroad”.

There are growing concerns from the government over the effect the attack will have on the Tunisian economy. Tourism Minister Salma Loumi said: “This is a catastrophe for our economy. Our losses will be great, but the loss of human life was even greater.” 6 million tourists, mainly Europeans, visited Tunisia last year and provided about 7% of its gross domestic product (GDP); most of its foreign currency revenues; and more jobs than any other industry but farming.

Heightened security; a state of emergency, and evacuation

Following the attack authorities tightened security and deployed more than 1,400-armed officers to hotels and beaches.

It’s the second major massacre to have happened this year, and has been described as the worst attack Tunisia has faced in its modern history. It comes following an attack in March on Tunis Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, where gunmen killed 22 mostly foreign visitors.

Tunisia declared a state of emergency on the 4th July 2015 following the attack, which gives security forces more powers, which lasts for a renewable period of 30 days. The last time Tunisia declared a state of emergency was in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising and the overthrow of the previous government, it was lifted in March 2014.

On the 9th July 2015 the British government advised against “all but essential travel to Tunisia”, and holiday companies began evacuating tourists.