LONDON — While blood still seeped into the sand on Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, one young couple who narrowly escaped the terrorist’s hail of bullets set out to prove that love cannot be defeated by hatred.
Ben Wilton, 26, grabbed his girlfriend by the hand and dragged her off the Mediterranean beach while at least 38 other tourists were murdered, some as they lay on sun loungers, by an Islamist gunman with an assault rifle.
Shaken and still fearing for their lives Wilton and Shelley Hey, who was celebrating her 25th birthday, cowered in their hotel room while the gunman was hunted down by the authorities.
Hey had no idea that her boyfriend had smuggled a diamond ring into their vacation luggage and had been planning to propose during a birthday dinner that evening. Amid the day’s horrific events, that plan obviously fell away from Wilton’s thoughts.
Then, about six hours after their escape, Wilton changed his mind. “I thought, ‘Screw them. They are not going to stop us,’” he told The Sun. “I wanted to show my love for Shelley and I didn’t want the terrorists to win.”
Tears were streaming down both of their faces, as he got down on one knee on the balcony of the room where they had been virtual prisoners only hours before. “It was an act of defiance against what happened,” he said.
Hey, who works at a kindergarten, said, “Yes.”
“Our hearts go out to all the families who have lost someone and those who were injured,” she said. “Our marriage proposal is just one little bit of good that has come out of such a tragic day.”
Officials fear the death toll of Brits alone will rise to 30, which would make it the most deadly attack on British citizens since the July 7 bombings 10 years ago, which killed 52 and injured more than 700 on trains and buses in London.
Hundreds of locals marched in Tunis and Sousse in solidarity with the victims; some carried British and Tunisian flags, others lit candles for the fallen. Placards reading “Sousse will not die” underlined the country’s determination to retain its profitable relationship with the West despite the threat of thousands of Tunisian jihadists who have gone to fight or train in neighboring Libya or Iraq and Syria.
With the flag flying at half-staff over Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that Britain would fight back. “The man who did this, the smiling gunman with a Kalashnikov hidden in a parasol, demonstrates the level of evil we are dealing with. It’s an evil we’ve seen on Mount Sinjar in Iraq and in shopping malls in Kenya; at magazine offices in Paris and in schools in Pakistan,” he wrote in an article for The Telegraph. “We will not be cowed. To our shock and grief we must add another word: resolve. Unshakeable resolve. We will stand up for our way of life.”
He said Britain would continue airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria but also signaled a willingness to crack down at home. “We must give our police and security services the tools they need to root out this poison,” he wrote. “We must be more intolerant of intolerance—rejecting anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative and create the conditions for it to flourish.”
The Conservative Party, which won its first British majority in more than 20 years last month, has vowed to strengthen powers that would allow the police and security services to uncover and disrupt radical elements within Britain’s Muslim community.
Social media is one area where Britain continues to increase surveillance of Islamist and terrorist-sympathetic accounts. And over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook were being used for a different but equally macabre task: Family members of those missing in Tunisia were circulating images of parents, friends and grandparents who had not returned increasingly desperate calls since the massacre on the beach. Most of those appeals have now fallen silent, as confirmation of the deaths has arrived.
For others, like Holly Graham, the wait goes on. Her parents booked a vacation to the sunny Mediterranean to celebrate her mother’s 50th birthday. They have not been heard from since Friday’s shooting and their belongings remain untouched in their hotel room. The British government and the vacation company are unable to say what happened to them.
“My friends and I have made 20 different calls to the Foreign Office on a line they set up supposedly to help families requiring information. We have not been called back or acknowledged,” she told the Daily Mail. “In the meantime I am left with this terrible wait for information which is very hard to bear.”
Lindsey Thwaites, 39, was in the same position, waiting for news of her parents Elaine and Denis, a former professional soccer player. On Sunday, refusing to accept that her prayers would go unanswered, she flew to Tunisia to join the search herself.