Bouazza ben Bouazza and Harold Heckle, ASSOCIATED PRESS
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — With bullets flying and his heart pounding, Spanish tourist Josep Lluis Cusido never got a clear look at the men shooting their way through the Bardo museum in Tunis as he hid behind a pillar. The only thing he noticed what that the attacker closest to him seemed young.
Cusido, the mayor of the small Spanish town of Vallmoll, will never know for certain but the man who stood just a few meters (yards) away was likely 20-year-old Yassine Laabidi — the younger of the two attackers.
“They looked to see how they could inflict the most damage possible. I saw one group who was in the museum who took refuge in a room… They went in there and machine gunned them all,” Cusido told The Associated Press Saturday, stifling a sob.
After breakfast Wednesday morning, Laabidi had left home to go to his job making deliveries for a local business, his father Arbi told The Associated Press outside the family’s home in the neighborhood El Omrane at the edge of Tunis.
Later that day he joined up with 26-year-old Hatem Khachnaoui and shot dead 21 people at the renowned museum — including a Tunisian security agent who had recently become a father — before being killed in a shootout with security forces.
In El Omrane — a poor neighborhood that has proven fertile ground for jihadi recruiters — a mourning tent has gone up in front of the Laabidi home, where the family is still trying to come to grips with the fate of a young man they said “liked the good life.”
“We want to know who transformed him, who brainwashed him so that he went to kill innocent people. We have to find the people who are sending our children to death and setting our country adrift,” said his brother, Khaled.
Anna Tounsia, a neighbor who knows the family well, said she mourns the loss of young Laabidi as well as the victims of the attack.
“Yes he killed. We’re sad for those who died, sad for the security agent who was killed and left a child,” she said. “Find the people who did this. Go to the mosques, monitor them.”
Authorities have said Laabidi and Khachnaoui had slipped across the border to Libya in December to reach one of many militia training camps there. On Saturday, 20 other people linked to the attack were detained in Tunisia, prosecutors said, but didn’t give any details.
For Cusido, who is now back in Spain, insomnia and headaches have become constant companions, as has the memory of the bullet-riddled woman he was unable to help.
“She’d been hit by bullets and I tried to help her but couldn’t and then ran to hide,” he said. “There are scenes that I fear will remain in my head for a long time.”
Cusido had just arrived at the museum with his wife and other family when the gunmen came after him. With bullets ricocheting off the stairs as he raced up, Cusido made his way to the third floor, already crowded with visitors.
“I shouted ‘terrorists, terrorists’ and the shooters came in,” he said. “Some scattered, others couldn’t and were killed right there. It was truly a massacre.”
Cusido kept a bitter sense of humor about the ordeal as he described his attackers.
“From what little I saw — because I obviously wasn’t going to stop to take a selfie with them coming — the terrorists were young,” he said. The one nearest to him, who he saw most clearly, wore jeans and a black jacket or top, he said.
Like Cusido, Americans Gillian Grant and Carol Calcagni, were also climbing the stairs and recalled the terror and confusion most of all.
“I saw someone hiding. I had no idea, you know? Is this a good person, a bad person,” Grant told The Associated Press from Sidi Bou Said, a town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Tunis.
At one point, they peeked around a corner and saw armed men in black gesturing toward them.
“We had to make a decision. We didn’t know if they were the gunmen that had been shooting at everybody or if they were actually the police,” said Calcagni, a retiree from Hilton Head, South Carolina, who was visiting a daughter who works as a teacher in Tunis.
Both women insisted their affection for Tunisia had only grown since the attacks. As the women and other tourists were driven away from the museum after the attacks, their vehicles were surrounded by a cheering crowd.
“Hundreds and hundreds of Tunisians saying that ‘we support you, this is not what Tunisia is.’ All of us in the car were just so struck. It made such a great impression that these people came out in such numbers to give such love and support. We were bowled over,” Grant said.
She had no plans to cut her trip short. Nor did Calcagni.
“What happened here could have happened in any country in the world. Not just Africa, not just Europe, not just the Middle East, but any country. It could have happened in the United States, it could have happened where I live, and I’m not going to curtail anything because of it,” she said.
Benjamin Wiacek in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed. Heckle reported from Madrid.
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