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'To see what we saw... two ladies lying dead in a pool of blood'

On Thursday evening the gunman who would mow down more than 30 unarmed tourists in a luxury hotel went as usual to prayers at his mosque and walked down the streets greeting people he knew.

Neighbours of the family in the Hay Zuhour neighbourhood of the small town of Gaafour in the Siliana region of north Tunisia, said they were still trying to work out how Seifeddine Rezgui, a student at Kairouan university could have done such a thing.

A tweet from the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack and gave his jihadi pseudonym of Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani, which referred to the town, an ancient centre of Islamic learning, where he was studying for his degree, according to the SITE intelligence group. He had taken out a Tunisian passport in 2013, but had never used it, an official said.

"He was good, good, good!" said a neighbour and family friend, Monia Riahi, 50, standing with her daughters at the entrance to her house. "I've known him since he was small. He was never in trouble with anyone ever. Maybe he was brainwashed or something." She added how sorry she was for the dead.

Rezgui's father, a day labourer, earns less than €13 a day working on farms or the nearby railway line. He has been taken to the Tunisian capital for questioning by the police, along with his mother.

Rezgui was reportedly laughing and joking as he set about his murderous attack, and new pictures showed him wandering casually along the beach in shorts and a T-shirt, assault rifle in hands, as he began the killing spree.

"I think maybe, just maybe, it was poverty that did it," said neighbour Ammar Fazai, 64. "There's that old saying: 'If poverty was a man, I would kill him.' And maybe, like the lady said, they washed his brain and eliminated all the kindness from it."

Fazai explained that until the zinc and lead mines not far from the town closed in 1993, there was ample work, but unemployment in the area is now high, especially among the young. The Rezgui family also endured tragedy when a brother a year younger than Seifeddine was killed by a lightning strike aged 14 while out in the fields. Two other young siblings are currently staying with relatives while their parents are in Tunis.

Local people in the town say that there are many Salafists living there, following a hardline interpretation of Islam and based at the mosque that Rezgui attended daily. But one of the Salafist imams from the town denied that the group would ever incite young men to commit a massacre like Friday's attack.

"I'm as totally at a loss to explain this as everyone else. This is not the kind of Islam we preach here at all," said the imam of one mosque in town, a middle-aged man who declined to give his name.

He believed that the gunman must have been influenced by a far more radical strain of teaching, he added.

Confirming the gunman's identity, Tunisian prime minister Habib Essid said that Rezgui, 23, was not "known to the security services".

Recruits from poor towns flock to Islamic State. Up to 3,000 are now fighting with them in Iraq, Syria and latterly Libya, where there have been a string of Tunisian suicide bombers.

But such geopolitical niceties meant nothing on the beach last Friday. Husband and wife Christine and Tony Callaghan know that they are the lucky ones.

"To see what we saw, people lying dead in a corridor, two ladies in a pool of blood, a young man holding his fiancee's hand. We've been so lucky." Their story, and those of other survivors, reveals the shock and horror of Tunisia's worst ever terrorist attack.

"I've been doing a lot of crying," says Christine, pulling back the covers on her hospital bed to show a line of steel pins locked into her right leg by a red frame.

She spent half an hour on Friday afternoon lying in a pool of blood, first wondering if she had lost her husband and then fearing she would lose her leg, in Tunisia's worst ever terrorist attack.

Both Callaghans survived, and are recovering a floor apart in the friendly but basic public hospital in the Tunisian city of Sousse, where doctors worked through the night to save victims mown down in the murderous noon rampage through a luxury hotel.

Her husband, Tony, was preparing to limp back to his room and pack up the couple's belongings, before returning to the hospital for an afternoon operation on a bullet wound to his leg.

Hundreds of holidaymakers have been leaving the Tunisia beach resort where at least 38 people were killed in a gun attack on Friday.

As the initial shock of the attack faded yesterday, tourists who survived the assault were starting to deal with the grim logistics of recovering documents and possessions from the hotel that had descended into a hell, organise medical evacuations for injured loved ones, and reassure relatives back home.

Tunisians were also in shock and mourning, both for the victims themselves and for the impact the attack is likely to have on a struggling country heavily dependent on tourism and already reeling from a shooting spree at a major museum earlier this year.

Christine Callaghan was surrounded by flowers and clothed in a T-shirt brought by families of Tunisian patients who fussed over her, horrified by what has happened to her family in their country. "I have been here three years in a row, the people are so lovely. I would like to come back again," she said, before admitting that she does not know if she can face returning.

"The staff were running towards the beach when we were running away. They put themselves last," said Len, a 57-year-old plumber from Norfolk, as he waited for an evacuation flight in the early hours of Saturday with his wife.

The city's doctors also rushed to help, sending ambulances long before policemen or security forces arrived to stop the attack. Dozens of injured were taken in by clinics and hospitals across Sousse, and at least one suspended all planned surgery to throw themselves into tending the injured.

Many stories of quiet courage have emerged in the wake of the attacks as survivors recounted other near-miraculous escapes, such as the tourists who put the lives of two drowning women before their own relatives' safety. They plucked 59-year-old Cheryl Ireland and her 80-year-old mother, Margaret Wolfe, from the sea, where they had fled to escape the gunmen.

The two women use three sticks between them to walk and when they saw the attacker approach decided they would never make it to safety at the hotel so hobbled to the water instead. "How we did it, I don't know. Look at us, we can hardly walk," Ireland said.

But Wolfe had never learned to swim and as they sank into the waves she began to fear she might have swapped one grim fate for another, until two speed boats roared in with Tunisian captains but British tourists abroad.

The men were fellow guests who had come to look for their own families, but saved the two women first, as gunshots rang out down the beach.

"I was up to my chin in water, the boats just came up and they pulled me in," Wolfe remembered. "It was like a film."

© Observer

Sunday Independent