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“Especially, since we discovered pieces stolen from our (national) sites in the houses of Ben Ali and his family.” The western region of Kasserine, where the shrine of Sidi Boughanem is located, is one of the most marginalized parts of the country - with government figures showing about one in four people unemployed, far higher than the 15% unemployment rate for the country as a whole. There are four major sites located in an area of 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 square miles), and the land is peppered with architectural ruins and antique stones.Bigger sites are guarded around the clock, according to the INP, while less significant sites have security guards during the day.But he also attributed the increase in recovered objects to the fact that the authorities are getting more serious about tackling the illicit antiquities trade.“It might have been partly to do with state interests,” said Jrad.“There are economic reasons (for looting),” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Tunis.“The blame should not be put on the people who are trying to get by day-to-day, but the persons who are furnishing these collections.” Unlike in Libya or Egypt, the antiquities trade in Tunisia is fairly small and disorganized, according to a local policeman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.Archaeological sites such as this one in the region of Kasserine are often looted or damaged during illegal night-time excavations by people looking for goods to sell on, said Karim, a local historian from the nearby town of Foussana.Then there are farmers who stumble across antiques by accident while planting crops, he added, and other people who go digging on their own land in the hope of finding artefacts they can sell. But his colleagues are hunting for treasures, he said.
“I’m for the practice because people can profit, it can help people get some money from their (heritage).” Others, such as Ayoub Sayhi, a 22-year-old amateur filmmaker from Thala, called on the government to do more to care for the country’s ancient objects.“There are multiple groups (that do this),” said Karim, whose name has been changed for his safety.“It is happening almost on a daily basis.” The looting of archaeological sites is a longstanding problem in Tunisia, said Yasser Jrad, head of the seized objects department at the National Heritage Institute (INP).In January, she caught someone from the town attempting to dig up a mosaic and ceramics from a Roman site that contains a church.Matthew Hobson of the UK-based Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project, said multiple factors need to be taken into account when it comes to protecting heritage sites from theft, which is often driven by poverty and political instability.
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