Nowhere to turn

The ongoing fighting in Libya is forcing many civilians to flee into the desert or neighbouring countries.

nowhere to turn - libya refugees
A father holds his daughter who was born in a makeshift tent in the desert outside Ajdabiya [Credit: Phil Moore/UNHCR]

A child was born in a makeshift tent in the desert outside the Libyan city of Ajdabiya the other day. Her parents named her ‘Intisar’ (‘Victory’ in Arabic), but her father worries that she will not get the medical care a newborn needs. They have been living in the desert in makeshift shelters constructed from twigs and blankets for more than two weeks, ever since fierce fighting erupted in their home city. They are without fresh water, baby’s milk and medicine, though local people from the distant town of Tobruk, three hours to the northeast, are bringing loaves of bread and bottles of water whenever they can.

“She should have medicine and vaccines,” says her father.
Overall, the war in Libya has displaced tens of thousands of people (precise numbers are hard to come by). Some have fled all the way to Egypt and some even now are trying to return to their homes. But most are in a kind of limbo – living in the open, in the desert or as ‘guests’ in cities like Tobruk, relying on the kindness of strangers. The longer they are forced to stay away from their homes, the greater the burden on dwindling supplies, food and medicine.

Actual casualties among civilians may still be relatively low. But ordinary Libyans are still the main victims of this war.

Shifting front lines – and they are changing daily – make it difficult for civilians who want to return to their homes to decide what to do. Many tried to go back to Ajdabiya last weekend, after rebels seized the town under Allied air cover, but are now staying put, as news spreads of counterattacks from the west.

Power has been cut in several cities for weeks, there is little fresh water and shortages of gas, flour and medicine are beginning to bite. A protracted conflict will exhaust Libyans ability to manage on their own.

Ajdabiya is one of the worst hit cities. Most of its 140,000 residents fled the fighting two weeks ago. They are now in Benghazi or Tobruk, where they are living in apartments offered by strangers, or in Egypt. But thousands also turned southward into the desert or towards the northeast and are now on their own, relying on support from Libyans themselves. Conditions are very primitive there, with no fresh water, latrines or even a regular supply of food, let alone baby’s supplies for newborns like Intisar.

‘A dark future’

Displaced people I have spoken to in Libya and neighbouring Egypt say that they fled so quickly that they could not even bring their clothes with them. Children, entire families, even, were abandoned in the rush. A three week old baby was just handed to a woman in Tobruk when the mother was lost. An uncle walked up to the woman in a line at the city hospital and handed her the baby. “He did not even ask my name,” the woman told me.

Everyone wants to go back to their homes. But they do not know when it will be safe to do so. “I am just sitting and waiting and watching TV to follow the news,” a resident of Ajdabiya who fled to Egypt told me there. “My future is totally dark.”

For displaced people still inside Libya, living in the desert and in other parts of the country, what at first seemed a brief, emergency sojourn away from their homes is now looking like a much longer stay.

And Libyans own ability to cater to the displaced in such areas is increasingly under strain. For weeks, Libyans away from the front lines have been putting up their fellow citizens, providing free food, gas, water, even cash to the displaced. But their own prospects are also unclear.

Month-long reserves of essential food items like wheat flour, which once came from Tripoli, are running low. Vegetable prices in Tobruk and Benghazi have risen as much as four fold in the past two weeks. Residents told me of shortages of basic hygienic supplies, essential medicines, cooking oil, flour and milk for infants. In a country soaked in oil, even gas is hard to find, as electric pumps in Ajdabiya and other cities without power no longer operate.

We had to scrounge for water bottles to fill with fuel to make the 700km round-trip journey across the desert to the city and still had to cadge from generous truck drivers along the way go eke out the last few kilometres.

If the fighting continues, Libyans may not be able to cope on their own. “They need as much help and as fast as possible,” Anwar Hasan, a Libyan oil refinery safety specialist, told me after delivering cases of water and bread to a makeshift settlement of displaced people from Ajdabiya. “The situation here is so sad.”  
The fortunes of war are having a direct impact on the delivery of relief as well. The medical director of Tobruk hospital told me that 10 days ago he sent two ambulances to bring medicines to the settlement of al Bedann, where Intisar and her family live. But they were intercepted at a road block set up by a sudden counterattack by Gaddafi’s forces. The vehicles and everything inside were torched though the doctors escaped with their lives, he said. 

The longer the fighting continues, the harder it will be for families like Intisar’s. Her father has removed his family from immediate danger, but now comes the hard part. “I am only afraid of God,” says a close friend of the father who travelled with them two weeks ago to al Bedann. “But our obligation is to protect the children and the women and the … old men. So that is why we brought them here.”

Another challenge for the international community: Keeping these families and other Libyans caught up in the fighting alive until it is safe for them to go back home.

Andrew Purvis was bureau chief for TIME Magazine in Africa and Central Europe and Germany and is now a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He has been reporting on the plight of displaced people in and around Libya for the past month.

Source: Al Jazeera