The building that locals know as Mussolini’s palace is located on top of a small hill near Cité Hached in the Bou Argoub area.

The building that locals know as Mussolini’s palace is located on top of a small hill near Cité Hached in the Bou Argoub area.

Italian immigrants built the palace – originally known as Villa du Zodiaque because of the mosaics within which depicted figures from the zodiac– in case the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, came there on a victory tour of North Africa. That was if his military campaigns were successful during WWII. Obviously they were not and over time, the villa, which was never occupied, has fallen into disrepair. Walls are cracked, paint is faded and the place is now inhabited by several homeless families.

As one approaches the palace, you can see laundry hanging in the cracked window frames. It is not easy to get in here – not because of any guards but because the gate is hugely rusted and its very hard to open and close. The residents who live here got used to it and they now think the gate is much safer this way.

From tin shacks to the palace

One of the first inhabitants of the villa, who would only give her name as Basma, says that she and her three children and husband moved in here in the 1990s. They had been living in tin shacks before that. Other families soon joined them.

“We were poor families who could not afford to pay rent,” Basma explains. “So we came here to share rooms in the palace. The government has never paid this place any attention. It’s become a place for criminals and ne’er-do-wells who used it as a venue to drink alcohol or do drugs. So we decided to move in here. We felt that we deserved to live here more than they did.”

The families living here don’t care so much about the villa grounds – it’s often used as a rubbish dump by locals. They are more concerned about protecting the sheep they raise here. The villa’s main entrance is now a stockyard and sheep dogs roam about freely.

Walking around the villa is not a pleasant experience. There is a lot of mess and the main hall has been divided in two by a wobbly-looking brick wall. Some of the windows are bricked up and all of the marble pieces and mosaics seem to be gone, leaving only holes where they once were. The roof is covered in plants and rubbish and birds’ nests.

‘Not a decent life’

Basma looks around her. “We live with snakes and animals,” she complains. “In winter it rains in here and in summer it is hot and smells bad. There’s no drinking water either. This is not a decent life.”

Representatives from the government have been to look at the villa to see how it can best be preserved, Sami Kroof, the commissioner of Bou Argoub, says. But they all decided not to evict the homeless families who were living in the villa.

“On the contrary,” Kroof said, “we provide these families with aid regularly. We have no intention of removing them. There are efforts now though to distribute plots of land to poor families. Eventually we would like to solve the housing problem and restore the palace because nobody can deny it has historical value.”