IN a shocking and emotional interview, I spoke to two survivors of the infamous Islamic terrorist attack in Tunisia, to better understand what they went through, and what, if any support they received after their lives were irreversibly changed forever.
Rows of thick white plastic sun loungers face the glistening ocean like front-row seats at a theatre. A few of them have been intentionally moved just a little askew; a fraction closer into the direct line of sunlight for that extra-special holiday tan.
Kneel beside one, avoiding the condensation-dripping cans of coke and bottles of factor 15 laying in the sand at your feet, and you would see all the layers of a perfect vacation. A casual wall of browning toes. A non-invasive scattering of adults and children playing in the sand and surf in front. A brother and sister building a sand castle. A newly-wed couple all clingy and giggly in the calm shallows.
A young 20-something – dark hair, shorts and sandals – is smoking a cigarette and making a phone call to a loved-one on his mobile phone as he gazes out peacefully to sea. The man on the other end of the line is the young man’s father.
But this isn’t just a catch-up call; one of those “I’m having a great time” types. Something terrible is about to happen; something inhumane, unnatural, wicked. The young man knows it. He knows it because he believes that he has been sent by Allah to unleash it.
Pain, horror, heartache; all will explode in just a few short moments. But not until the beautiful sea, the warmth of the sun, and the blueness of the sky have been admired for just a little longer.
Not until he finishes his final phone call.
Whilst we will possibly never know what words the 22-year-old electrical engineering student (who had spent the past half-an-hour mingling and blending-in with tourists) chose to exchange with his father, we can be reasonably certain that they didn’t convey any signs of regret, no sentiments of remorse or last-minute apologies. He was on a holy mission; a Jihad that he believed would grant him eternal joy and reward in the afterlife.
38 people would die in the process. 30 of them would be British tourists taking in the same beautiful skyline as he was.
The young man, Seifeddine ‘Sef’ Rezgui is an adolescent who enjoyed hip-hop music and line dancing, had walked daily to a mosque in a poorer area of town because the preacher there was more ‘radical’ than that at the mosque just a few doors down from his flat. Years earlier, Sef had also become involved with an Islamic student union with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saying his farewells and finishing his phone call, Sef wraps his fingers around the mobile phone, pulls his arm back behind his head, and tosses it, as hard and as far as he can until it splashes into the sea.
He paces the shore for a few minutes, smoking the cigarette down to the butt before dropping the last burning paper cinder into the sand. He then strolls over to the parasol he’d brought with him, pulls out some grenades and a concealed AK47, and slings the gun over his shoulder.
A small crowd of tourists begin to gather behind him out of curiosity, watching on as he casually walks down the beach, passing an inflatable children’s pool toy in the shape of a killer whale. He looks down at the sea as it laps up against his toes, and then, with a big grin on his face, he turns around to face the rows of fun-loving beach dwellers – young and old – and opens fire.
Amid screams and painful cried, Sef then continues casually up the beach, killing indiscriminately; grinning evilly as he goes before making his way into the nearby hotel gardens and up into the foyer.
“Tunisia was a last minute decision,” Shirley Church, who was inside that very hotel at the time, told me during our long hair-raising telephone conversation.
“We went into the travel agents and looked at all the different places, and the girl from Thomson told us that it was safe and nice there”.
Shirley and her husband Joe booked their 14-day vacation on the spot, and now, almost at the end of their time in Tunisia, the couple were taking full advantage of their little paradise; how comfortable and elegant the hotel was, how beautiful-a-view it afforded being located slap-bang on the seafront. The fresh air. The sun beaming down through the window as they finished getting dressed, checking they had everything on them, scooping up the room key from a side table and heading out.
“We walked down to the corridor and got to the lift” she told me.
The lift down to the foyer was glass-fronted and, usually, the view was a crisp, pleasant one. Today’s however was far different.
“As soon as we stepped into the lift we could hear screaming” Shirley said, her voice tired and crackling unaided down the line as she began to go into great detail of how, in the blink of an eye, her and her husbands’ lives would be almost completely destroyed.
“We could see everything – people running, shouting, yelling, panicking, and then of course there was the gunfire”.
They had already started to descend. The doors were shut. The lift was in motion. There was no turning back. All they could do now was wait, confused and panic-stricken as they gradually reached what could easily have been mistaken as a check-in point for Hell.
Waiting for them, firing away merrily in a cocaine-fuelled euphoria as he used up the last of his rounds, was the young Jihadist from the beach.
With the gate connecting the beach to the hotel left unlocked, the radicalised 23-year-old was able to simply stroll up unchallenged through the garden, shooting and killing anyone he came across along the way, and to walk right through the pool-side door of the Riu Marhaba Hotel, and into the reception area.
“If he’d have come just half an hour or so later he’d have had an absolute field day” said Shirley.
“Everyone was still running and screaming and panicking as we left the lift” she continued. “We just followed the crowd. Everyone was running for the fire exits, so we started running with them. I could hear gunshots behind us and saying ‘oh my God, we’re gonna die’. My legs went to jelly.
“Then, as the Jihadi started to catch up with us, people were scrambling into offices, anywhere where they could find a door. At that point me and the husband got parted.
“While I was in the corridor running, suddenly it felt like something hit me on the back. When I eventually opened my eyes I was on the floor facing the opposite way in the biggest pool of blood you ever did see; head against the wall. Then I started to notice that I couldn’t move my right leg”.
Shirley panted in agony as she yelled out desperately for her husband.
“Next to me against the wall was an injured woman with a fractured femur. I just sat there bleeding to death. Another 2-3 minutes and I knew I’d be dead.”
With her memory of that moment still a blur due to her life slowly draining away, at this point of the interview she passed me over briefly to Joe for him to fill in the blanks.
“She just slipped out of my hand” he told me sadly, his voice warm and local. “I must’ve only been away from her for two minutes or so. Inside the room I managed to get into there was a dead young girl lying on the floor by a dresser.
“I stared at her lifeless body in disbelief. Then I heard her [Shirley] shouting, rushed back outside, and the first thing I saw were all the dead bodies scattered up the corridor”.
Rushing over to his heavily injured wife, the first thing that Joe noticed was just how serious the situation was.
Shirley was bleeding-out.
The strike to her back that she had felt before waking up facing the other direction had in fact been the blast from a grenade. As scores of terrified tourists fled to the many rooms and fire exits in search of escape or shelter, Sef made sure that as many of them as possible were greeted by one of the grenades he’d brought along for this very purpose.
Seeing his wife fading away before him, Joe knew that he had to get help.
“He was trying to shout for help through a blown-out window” said Shirley. “Eventually two paramedics turned up, searching for people. They walked up to us in their white coats but didn’t know what they could do for me. They just looked at Joe, looked back down at me, and then walked away”.
Obviously, upon first glance, Shirley was a lost cause.
In that moment of despair, the husband and wife – both proud grandparents – began to come to terms with the stark reality that Shirley wasn’t going to survive.
Picking up his mobile phone with trembly hands, Joe made a call to his eldest son.
There was no answer.
He scrolled frantically through his contact list and tried his youngest son instead.
As I asked Joe the delicate question of what he’d said to his son in what he believed might be Shirley’s final moments, his voice began to quiver, and eventually he broke down, sobbing uncontrollably.
“He answered the phone and I just said ‘I’m sorry’” he told me, his sobs making the hairs on my arms stand on end. “I just told him that I was sorry and that I didn’t know if he’d ever see his mum again”.
Meanwhile, seeing that there was no more ‘fun’ to be had in the hotel, Sef decided it was time to make his escape. He ran past the neighbouring Hotel Roy Bellevue and up a side alley, still armed with his AK47 and reportedly still clutching his last grenade.
At around 12:30 local time, a nearby builder, Mayel Moncef, spotted Rezgui from his rooftop vantage point and hurled a pile of tiles down on his head.
Sef – who had by now brutally stolen 38 innocent lives – turned and fired wildly across the street, narrowly missing the police officers who had finally caught up with him.
A single retaliation shot rang out – a crack and a zip that echoed down the street. Sef fell to the ground, killed instantly.
Back at the still smoke-filled hotel corridor, just as Shirley was certain that she was about to die, some brave workmen-turned-selfless vigilantes found the couple huddled together by the wall.
“They carried me downstairs on a sunbed” Shirley told me. “I was loaded into an ambulance and taken off to hospital. From what I remember they stitched my gaping holes up after removing a load of shrapnel. But even then the doctors and nurses didn’t really know what to do with me”.
Shirley was flown back to England the next day, spent a few days having lifesaving surgery in Peterborough City Hospital before eventually being transferred to Stanmore, a hospital generally known for specialising in the effective treatment of soldier amputees.
“Shrapnel from the explosion had cut straight through the sciatic nerve on my right leg” she said. “In Stanmore they tried to repair it and I had to go back and forth for ongoing treatment”.
Sadly, despite their best efforts, Shirley’s leg wounds proved to be far too severe.
“My right leg was stone cold” she said. “A doctor finally told me that there was nothing else that could be done for the nerve. I’d have to have my leg amputated”.
In the days that followed the attack, Shirley became fixated on the news updates. By then, police and Intelligence agencies were able to establish that Rezgui had been working with the same Jihadist gang who had attacked the Bardo National Museum just three months before the Sousse attack, had been trained alongside one of the gunmen at an ISIS camp in Libya, and had links to an extremist cleric who had operated in England.
As predicted, ISIS claimed full responsibility for the terrorist attack, with a BBC Panorama investigation later revealing that the mastermind behind both attacks was one Chamseddine al-Sandi, who had paid for the attackers to go to Libya, had issued them their orders, and had even arranged for Sef to be dropped off at the beach that morning.
Al-Sandi is currently believed to be in hiding in Libya. No great effort has been made to find him.
The ramifications of the attack in that fateful morning have – as with all terrorist attacks – been immense, and go far beyond just physical damage.
“It’s affected both of us” Shirley admitted. “Our anxiety levels are still through the roof; we can’t go on holidays any more, have to avoid large crowds, loud noises. I can’t even just nip to the shops any more either. Joe has to help me in my wheelchair”.
Joe, who was forced to pack-up work to become a full time cater to his disabled wife, was even more open with me about the impact that the Islamic terrorist attack has inflicted on his mental health.
“Before it happened I was bubbly” he said. “Now I just sit down and cry for no reason. It’s changed our entire lives. I hate big crowds. When we have to go into Peterborough town we make sure that we get there for 9am and leave by 9.30. We don’t stop anywhere for long now at all. And whenever we go out we’re checking everywhere to make sure it’s safe. I even sit in places like the hospital, looking everywhere thinking things like ‘why’s that bag there? Why’s he acting strange?’. And every time we see a terrorist attack in the news it brings it all back. We can never get over it. We’ve just been left to learn to live with it”.
The husband and wife have also been hit financially.
“I had to pack up work” Joe told me, bravely unafraid to hide his sadness and frustration. “We’ve had no support, no compensation, and now after working all my life, just as I’m turning 64, I’m suddenly on just £62 a week carers allowance.
“What happened has made our life a living hell. We can’t do what we wanna do any more. It’s destroyed our lives.”
“When we see Jihadists living here or coming back from fighting ISIS and being able to claim money on the social it makes me really cross” Shirley added. “No way should they be allowed to return to this country and put other lives at risk. It makes you wonder who the government actually care about.
“No-one ever mentions anyone who survived – how they’re getting on, the struggles they go through every single day, physically and emotionally. But we’re here, alone, and the pain is going to be with us forever”.
Ironically, perhaps it can be said that no one has ever suffered more long-term misfortune than those who were lucky enough to have survived; to live on, to endure, with lifelong mental, often physical wounds and no real means nor hope (let alone help) to one day see them healed.
“I’ve just had another operation” Shirley tells me, “this time removing more shrapnel from my knee”.
I asked her if she often thought of Sef, the young student-turned-Jihadist who, through radical Islam and a will to do evil, had turned their world upside down.
“Some said he was smiling while he was doing it” she scowled. “But now he’s dead. I don’t even want to see photos of his face. He’s ruined my life. I was such an active person, now I’m just angry and frustrated. I get phantom pains in my leg where there’s now a stump, I’m on loads of painkillers, but I’m never pain-free, ever, and never will be.
“I’m still full of shrapnel in both legs, my back, and in my hand. It’ll now stay there unless it ever comes to the surface”.
As she says this, I get the sense that Shirley doesn’t notice the importance or poignancy in those words. And yet, rather remarkably, she still finds the strength to highlight her growing frustration with how weak we have become in dealing with the true causes of terrorism.
“When people say that these people aren’t ‘true Muslims’, they’re lying” she told me. “They might be evil, whereas most Muslims definitely aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t inspired by Islam and that they aren’t Muslims. To me, these extremists are trying to take over this country and the world, and it’s okay people saying ‘don’t let them win’. But right now, they’re winning”.