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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. In Ben Gardane, the local economy is made up largely of smuggling contraband goods, weapons, and jihadists across the Libyan border, where Islamic State training camps were established late last year.
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.
As an educator of the town's youth, Saad sees firsthand the struggle many face while attempting to survive. Life here is a dead end.
As a foreign journalist, one is immediately eyed with suspicion here, and there is some justification for locals to be wary of outsiders. 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.