Last residents hold on in Tunisia's underground houses

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Tunisia's underground houses
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Tunisia's underground houses
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, hangs washing at her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away." Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
A zaouia stands near to troglodyte houses on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, walks outside her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, talks with her daughters after finishing her housework, outside of her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
A pair of shoes hang on the wall of a troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Mariem, 89, sits outside of her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Samar, 18, and Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, (C) shell peas as their brother watches television at their troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
A cat sits inside a troglodyte house in Matmata, Tunisia, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, looks out from the kitchen of her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Mounjia, 60, poses for photograph in the kitchen of her troglodyte house in Matmata, Tunisia, February 6, 2018. "I don't want to leave my troglodyte house for a modern one, we could buy everything but not peace of mind," Mounjia said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Mounjia, 60, weaves carpet at her troglodyte home in Matmata, Tunisia, February 6, 2018. "I don't want to leave my troglodyte house for a modern one, we could buy everything but not the peace of mind," Mounjia said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Tayeb, 76, sits inside his troglodyte home in Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. "Our home was open for tourists to visit, but now with the lack of tourists we don't earn anything. I don't want to leave my house, it's where I grew up," Tayeb said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, prepares vegetables to cook in the kitchen of her troglodyte house in Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Ahlem, four, climbs up a wall to reach her rabbit's hideaway at her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, sits with her children at their troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Mustapha, 54, a farmer, sits in the corridor of his his family's troglodyte house which was converted to a warehouse, on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Aicha, 64, lays olives out to dry on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
A general view of troglodyte houses in Matmata, Tunisia, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Tunisian tourists watch as Saliha Mohamedi, 36, walks around her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
A Berber woman and her sister ride a donkey on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Saliha Mohamedi, 36, fills a bowl from her water storage outside her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. "I don't want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away," Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Mounjia, 43, leads her donkey towards her troglodyte house in Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. "I would like to leave for a modern house but I'm not rich enough to built one in a new city. Life in a troglodyte community is exhausting. We have to fetch water and wood, we have no electricity and can't even install a solar panel," Mounjia said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
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MATMATA, Tunisia, Feb 23 (Reuters) - In the arid valleys of southern Tunisia's Djebel Dahar region, people have lived for centuries in underground houses whose earthen casing provides protection against searing summer heat and winter winds.

But in recent decades, rural depopulation has meant fewer people live in the homes, which are composed of rooms hewn into the walls of an excavated circular courtyard. The few remaining families say they are attached to the homes and the land or see no way of moving.

"My father died, my mother died, the girls got married and I was left alone. They all went to lead their own lives," said Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, who lives in a five-room troglodyte home in the village of Tijma.

"If I leave then the house will be gone."

The homes are concentrated around Matmata, which lies in a cratered landscape dotted with palm trees and olive groves about 365 km (227 miles) south of Tunis.

They are highly unusual, though similar constructions are found across the border in Libya, to the southwest. In other parts of the Djebel Dahar, houses and storerooms were carved from rock and earth above ground.

Many families left the underground houses when new towns and villages were built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a modernisation drive by President Habib Bourguiba.

Locals suspect Bourguiba wanted to dilute Berber communities as he strove to integrate them into the Arab nation after independence from France.

Disputes over inheritance and periods of drought or heavy rain, which can cause the houses to collapse, also contributed to the rural exodus.

Some built modern houses on adjoining land, using the traditional homes as stables or workshops.

Residents live largely off olive farming and tourism. Matmata became a popular destination after a troglodyte home converted into a hotel was used as a Star Wars set in the 1970s.

But tourism across Tunisia is still recovering from a sharp decline after the country's 2011 Arab Spring uprising and major attacks targeting tourists in Tunis and Sousse in 2015.

"Before the revolution there was tourism. Since then there's not been much, just some Tunisians who come on days off or holidays," said Saliha Mohamedi, 36.

She says she is comfortable in the house, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips.

"If I got another house I would give it to (my children). This is where we have passed our lives," she said.

Hedi Ali Kayel, 65, who runs a small shop in the village of Haddej, is one of the last people in the area who knows how to build and maintain the houses. The last new house he dug was in the 1970s.

Now he is fighting a lonely battle to save the ones that still exist. "Every time there's rain I come and repair them," he says. "I don't let them go." (Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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