By Gail Simmons
It was late one evening in mid-March when I landed at the airport of Djerba, an island just off the coast of southern Tunisia. My reason for coming was to write a travel story about this idyllic Mediterranean retreat, mythological isle of Homer's Lotus Eaters, now a haunt of affluent European sun-seekers.
But from the moment I saw the queues of exhausted migrants filling the departures hall it became clear that there was a much more compelling story to be told – that of the refugees from Libya's chaos, and the Tunisian people who had freely given their time and money to help them.
The Libyan border of Ras Jedir is only around 140 kilometres from Djerba by road. Tahar Khiary, a local businessman, offered to take me there, and to the camp where perhaps 17,000 refugees were waiting to be repatriated. I was one of the first Western journalists to be making this road trip, but it turned out that this was a first for Khiary too.
"Before the revolution, taking a journalist to the border would not have been possible," he said. "A journalist couldn't travel freely, without permission and without paperwork. But the paperwork went with Ben Ali!"
Khiary explained how people from all over Tunisia, even the poorest, were donating aid and volunteering to help the refugees. His own tour company, Tunisie Voyages, had lent the islanders a coach. "Fifty volunteers went to the border, to clean the camp," he told me. "This is what was missing for many decades. Before, this sort of effort would have been used politically. Now the people are doing it for their country."
|Momo, left, is helping to organise the refugees waiting at the airport [Credit: Gail Simmons]
We crossed over the old Roman causeway to the mainland and headed south towards Ras Jedir. Bordering the highway, the desert was beginning to bloom and we passed straggling villages where jerry cans of cheap petrol from Libya, carpets, foods and ceramics were being bartered.
"Before, Libyans would come over to Djerba and Sfax, to the health clinics here," Khiary said. "They had plenty of money, but no health system."
Coming in the other direction were cars with bonnets swathed in the Tunisian flag to show they, too, were aiding the humanitarian effort.
Nearing the border we stopped at a warehouse being used to store tents provided by international NGOs and the supplies donated by ordinary Tunisians. Here I spoke with Sofiene Kallel, a doctor from the Tunisian Red Crescent who was organising the work. He described the medical problems faced by the refugees, many of whom had walked for days to reach the border, and I asked him what message he wanted to send to the international community.
"What we need most now are flights to get these people home," he told me, "as their own governments cannot help them."
It was late afternoon when we reached Ras Jedir. Across no-man's land I could see the grass-green flags of Gaddafi's Libya. A trickle of refugees trudged over, rolled-up blankets under arms, bags perched on heads. Many had been robbed and stripped at the border by Libyan guards.
One Tunisian volunteer said Gaddafi had recently sent a jet overhead. "He wanted to provoke us. We couldn't shoot it down as we didn't want to risk injuring the people below." Another told me that if Ben Ali had still been in charge, he would have shot the refugees as they arrived.
A few soldiers slouched against walls, and the atmosphere was calm. Three men in reflective vests stood by a car draped with the Tunisian flag. They were from M'Saken, near Sousse, six hours drive from Ras Jedir, and had had been here for ten days, with supplies donated by their community. They described how proud they were to be helping the refugees.
"Before, there was mistrust. People didn't work together properly, as you didn't know who you were talking to. Now, people can be open, and trust each other."
A few kilometres from Ras Jedir is the refugee camp itself. When I arrived the light was beginning to seep from the sky, and the air was scented from camp fires. Stretching to the horizon was a tent city in the pale green of the UNHCR, plus the usual detritus of twenty-first century humanity: Discarded water bottles, plastic bags. But also touches of domesticity here and there. Many tents were draped with drying laundry, and others had neat pairs of shoes parked outside. One man had set up in business as a barber.
Their occupants were from Sudan, Egypt, Bangladesh. Some were cooking their evening meals; others were crouching in little knots, waiting. Tunisian volunteers, mostly young men with faces covered by medical masks, handed out bread. The scene was wretched, but despite the huge numbers I was struck by the sense of cooperation and human dignity.
Back at Djerba airport, the check-in hall was filled with hundreds of corralled refugees from Ras Jedir waiting for flights to their homeland. This particular mass was flying to Dubai, then on to Bangladesh. Most could not speak English, or even Arabic, though some could communicate a little. One said he had not been paid for six months, and that they did not know what they would find when they got home. They would eventually have to move on again to find more work. Their flights may have been imminent, but for many the journey was by no means over.
Before I went through airport security I had one last conversation, with 'Momo' (Mohamed) from Zarzis, a town on the mainland just over the water from Djerba. His task was to organise the refugees waiting at the airport, and I asked him why he had volunteered to help. Was it because he felt proud to be a Tunisian? "Of course," he replied, "but most of all it's because I'm human."