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Mohammed Bouazizi climbed onto his fruit cart, doused himself with fuel and flicked on a lighter -- a protest that set off

'As a martyr he set free the whole country'

Bouazizi's family distraught but proud of hard-working son who stood up for rights after years of misery.

 

By Dario Thuburn - SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia

 Tunisia's revolution and has left his family bereft but proud.

"My son set himself alight and took me away with him too," said his mother Mannoubia, as she wept in the four-room family home in a desolate farming town, Sidi Bouzid -- a world away from Tunisia's Mediterranean tourist resorts.

"There's nothing that can replace him. He was the pillar of this household," she said. His sisters remembered the 26-year-old as a hard-working and playful brother who would always give them money to buy school books and food.

"I miss him a lot but I think that as a martyr he set free the whole country," said his sister Samiya, 19, her head covered in a black shawl.

"We have been suffering for a long time," she said.

Bouazizi's self-immolation was the shocking climax of years of humiliation by local police, who would often come and take his fruit for free, confiscate his scales and write him up for selling without an official vendor's permit.

 

 

'He was the pillar of this household'

 

After a police officer slapped him and took away his oranges on a cold morning in December, Bouazizi finally cracked. He pushed his cart in front of a regional administration building and set himself on fire.

"When I arrived he was so badly burnt that I couldn't recognise him. But then he prayed and I recognised his voice," his step-father, Ammar, said as he pointed to Bouazizi's charred cart, still strewn with mandarin rinds.

The family keeps the cart locked away in a garage -- they say the burnt-up fruit crates could become a monument one day to a man who has become a national martyr of the Tunisian revolt and whose name has echoed around the Arab world.

As Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, the pent-up anger of a population fed up with the daily humiliations of an authoritarian regime erupted in protests.

After he passed away on January 4 the protests escalated and just 10 days later president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali resigned abruptly and fled in disgrace.

There have since been several similar public suicide attempts in neighbouring Algeria and in Egypt by people fed up with their rulers.

"He liberated the Tunisian people and I hope he will free the Arab peoples," said Salem Bouazizi, as he came to pray at his brother's tomb in a rubble-strewn landscape outside of town, where olive trees and cactuses grow.

"The people who have the millions are respected and can do whatever they want and someone who just has a simple cart to live off gets banned. It's unacceptable. This is a huge problem here," said Salem, a builder.

Bouazizi's relatives are distraught but proud of a hard-working son who finally stood up for his rights after the family's years of misery.

The Bouazizis said they have had their farm land taken away by a powerful local businessman and his father worked himself to death on building sites.

His 50-year-old mother works on a farm and his step-father works as a builder too -- together they make around four euros ($5) a day.

"He was like a tree that caught fire but whose roots are still here," his aunt Radhiya cried out on the cement patio in front of the family home, as mourners came to pay their respects and were offered biscuits and fruit juice.

Bouazizi has become a local hero in a town where poverty is widespread.

"Everyone here has a lot of respect for him. He was the leader of this revolution. He is a hero for young people," said Zyad Al Gharbi, 27, a friend.

"He sacrificed himself for his rights and the rights of others," he said.

Tunisia began three official days of mourning on Friday for the victims of the revolution -- Bouazizi and the dozens of people shot dead by security forces in the wave of protests against the Ben Ali regime in the past month.

"Freedom" and "Bouazizi the Martyr" read graffiti on a wall near his home.

The national hero is a much-missed brother for his 16-year-old sister Besma.

"I remember him coming back from work when there was heavy rain. The first thing he would do is give us our pocket money," she said.

Her voice breaking into a whisper, she added: "He was very, very gentle. I'm proud of him. I'm very, very proud of him but sad at the same time.

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