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Snap All photos by Mohamed Abdelkawi Arriving in Ben Gardane, a tiny area in Tunisia just minutes from the border with Libya, feels like crossing into a bona fide rogue state. Gone are the tourist-friendly resorts, the open-minded attitudes, and the patriotic "new democracy" feeling that swaddles the rest of the country.
Even Tunisian flags are a rare sight. As Saad, a local schoolteacher, tells me, "Ben Gardane is only a part of Tunisia because we carry the same passport. It is like a different country here. The Tunisian government invests most of its funds in the north , which is located on the Mediterranean Sea and is a relative hotbed of tourism. As a result, areas such as Ben Gardane, which provide little return on government investment, are often overlooked.
Saad pulls no punches about the effects of the government's blind eye. They will deal with Libyans instead. Life here is a dead end. Just weeks before my visit, two major weapons caches were unearthed by Tunisian security forces in the town.
Reports vary about the possible destination of the double haul, which included rocket launchers and ammunition. It is unclear whether the weapons had been stashed and perhaps forgotten about during the Libyan revolution in , or destined for jihadist groups inside the Tunisian state. Jihad is big business around these parts, where decades of government underinvestment has forced people to eke out a living in any way that they can.
One man I spoke to, Mohamed, knows the problems caused by the lure of terror, which has drawn in many of the town's youth. Related: The Rebels of Libya "My cousin went to Syria in , and right now even his family doesn't know whether he is dead or alive. It is heartbreaking," he says. The Tunisian interior ministry estimates that at least 2, of its citizens have joined external jihadist groups since , though other estimates put the figure at well over 3,, with the conservative south and center of the country providing fertile breeding grounds for terrorism.