UK

Tunisia beach attack: Briton returns to Sousse one year on

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionColin Bidwell ran into the sea to escape the gunman, reports Orla Guerin

When Colin Bidwell goes somewhere new, he looks for escape routes.

The amiable 51-year old painter and decorator wants to be sure he knows which way to turn if he has to run for his life - as he did last June on a beach in Tunisia.

Mr Bidwell, from Windlesham in Surrey, was on holiday with his wife Chris, who also survived, in the coastal town of Sousse a year ago.

The couple knew the resort and the country well, having already visited Tunisia about a dozen times. But this time, as they lay on their sunbeds, terror came to the beach.

A year on the BBC brought Mr Bidwell back to Sousse - a difficult journey but one he wanted to make.

'I thought it was fireworks'

Tears coursed down his face as he passed through the marbled foyer of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where he and his wife had stayed.

Standing on the golden sands outside again he recalled how the gunman opened fire as he listened, oblivious, to The Stranglers.

The British victims

Inquests put back to 2017

"I had my headphones on, and just heard a couple of pops. I thought it was fireworks," he says, breathing heavily.

"As I leaned over the sunbed, I felt the first round go under my arm. I felt the velocity. I was petrified. I didn't know what to do.

"I saw my wife was already up on the sand, running towards the hotel. I thought he was coming towards me and continuing to kill people on the sunbeds. So I made the decision to run straight into the sea."

As he plunged into the azure blue waters he could still hear the gunfire.

"You never forget that sound," he adds.

Image copyright Colin Bidwell
Image caption Colin and Chris Bidwell, the night before the Sousse attack

The lone attacker, Seifeddine Rezgui, killed 38 tourists in as many minutes, 30 of them from the UK. It was the greatest British loss of life in a terror attack since the London bombings in 2005.

Just up the beach from the killing ground, Colin is reunited with the local man who rescued him and others from the water.

"Thank you, thank you," he says, hugging Mohammed Ben Saad.

"It was a very good thing you did for me. You saved my life."

It was only after he was pulled from the water, he realised two bullets had grazed him.

Mr Saad's water sports business is another casualty of the attack.

"Business is down 80%," he tells me, looking around the empty shore. "One day recently I counted more police here than tourists."

Away from the beach, in the busy main hospital in downtown Sousse, Colin had more people to thank. When he and other victims were brought here staff rushed to treat them, and to apologise.

'We were all shocked'

"Everyone from the cleaner to the gardener was coming in to say how sorry they were," he says. "And to ask if we were ok."

He was welcomed back by Dr Karim Bouattour, a softly-spoken surgeon, who says medical teams were also traumatised by the carnage.

"We had seen injuries like this in the Tunisian revolution," he says. "But this was a different context. We were all shocked. At another time I hope there will be psychological care even for us."

Image caption The Imperial Marhaba Hotel remains closed

He says Mr Bidwell's return is a message of hope for the future but admits there could be another attack.

"There is more security but you cannot say that there is no other attacks because in every country in the world it is possible - in the US, in London, in Paris," he says. "But we have to be stronger than the terrorists. "

Dr Bouattour says the target was not just the tourists, but democracy in Tunisia.

'When will tourists return?'

Since the attack - which was claimed by the so-called Islamic State - the Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to the country.

As many as 25,000 Britons used to come to Tunisia each week. Locals keep asking when they will be back.

"I miss this language," a waiter says when we hears us speaking English.

Mr Bidwell is hoping there will be a full recovery for both the victims, and the country.

"I hope and pray it becomes a safe country that other people can come back here and help the economy because the economy has been ruined because of one person," he says.

"There are still a lot of survivors that would be scared coming back. I understand that. I was scared but for me it was a process I had to do."

'Hardest thing'

During his latest stay in Sousse he barricaded himself into his hotel room every night, at his wife's request. But he says returning to the resort has been a healing experience.

"This is one of the best things I ever did," he says. "And it's the hardest thing I ever did."

Back at home in Surrey he will have fresh memories to share with the local Muslim cleric. He contacted him last year after the attack because he had many questions about Islam.

The survivor and the Imam have now become friends.

"I think everyone just needs to be a little bit more informed and to become a better citizen so we can stop anything like this ever happening again," he explains.

More on this story