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After Tunisia Attack, Tourists Leave — And Locals Worry

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Yesterday, at least one gunman opened fire at a seaside resort in Sousse in the North African country of Tunisia. The self-proclaimed Islamic State known as ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 38 people. NPR's Alice Fordham went there and has this report.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Right on this sundrenched Tunisian beach yesterday, as tourists jets-skied and paraglided, a family from Wales in the U.K. heard something weird.

DONNA DIX: We were on the beach when the shooting happened, right outside our hotel.

FORDHAM: Just a bit further down the curving golden bay, at least one gunman opened fire, killing dozens of people, including at least 15 Brits, as he moved through a five-star hotel while unarmed guards tried to stop him by throwing chairs and bottles. On her beach, the staff reassured mom of two, Donna Dix.

DIX: They told us, oh, it's OK. Don't worry. They're just making a film.

FORDHAM: It quickly became clear that wasn't true.

DIX: A man came up full of blood.

FORDHAM: They were so afraid when they realized what was happening.

DIX: Really, really scared.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, and distressed.

FORDHAM: And like thousands of other Europeans, they've cut their vacation short. Actually, they were advised to by their travel company. Dix is here with her cousin. They're both single moms of two, and for them, this was a lot of money.

DIX: I didn't want to go home. We've saved so hard as single parents to come here.

FORDHAM: And in the town of Sousse, the people are equally sad to see them go. The hotel's owner, Zohra Driss, gave an impassioned press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ZOHRA DRISS: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She says in Tunisia, the terrorists are fighting our values - the democratic values and the modernism and the economy. European tourists are the economic lifeblood of the town. Amid the Arab world's turmoil, Tunisia has worked hard to hang on to its visitors. After an attack on a museum in the capital earlier this year killed 21, a social media campaign sprang up in which people vowed to visit Tunisia in defiance of extremist violence. In the airport, I meet travel agent Sami Ben Khaled. He says for a while, the campaign helped keep bookings healthy.

SAMI KHALED: It's a big tragedy, but it were under control.

FORDHAM: But he doesn't think his industry will recover from this. Analysts say tourism made up as much as 15 percent of Tunisia's GDP last year. And there's little doubt the killer was specifically targeting foreign tourists. In the hospital in Sousse, I meet Imene Kechiche, wounded by ricocheting bullets in her arms, legs and pelvis. There's family at her bedside and a rose from the tour company on her pillow. She's been an administrator at the hotel for 10 years.

IMENE KECHICHE: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She was in her office as guests came running in, trying to escape a gunman. She has pale skin and light eyes and believes he mistook her for a foreigner. Except that as he turned his gun directly on her, she stammered out, in terrified Arabic, I have three children. He turned his gun away. I ask if she'll ever work with foreigners again.

KECHICHE: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: She says why shouldn't I? After this, nothing will be unexpected. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Sousse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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