Wayside town becomes Libyan refuge

In one eastern Libyan community taken over by refugees, families learn to cope with hardships brought by the uprising.

    Youssef Omar (L) and two family elders live with 77 other relatives in three houses in the Bethan settlement [Evan Hill]

    Bethan, LIBYA -- Bethan is a dusty, lonely settlement that lies several kilometres down an undulating desert highway southeast of Ajdabiya, the final outpost on the rebel front lines in eastern Libya. The main part of the village – around 100 unfinished, single-floor houses made of poured concrete – rises out of the sand without fanfare a few feet from the highway.

    No paved road leads into Bethan, and none runs through the orderly grid of half-built residences. Each building opens onto an unpaved alley of sand and rocks. Fluttering blankets block off entry to those few houses that boast empty courtyards. Most open directly onto the streets through door-less portals.

    During spring and summer months, Bethan is beset by sandstorms that sweep north through Libya’s vast deserts and into the Mediterranean Sea, reducing visibility to less than a hundred metres and blowing dust through the tiniest crevices. There is no plumbing, and since the uprising began in late February, only intermittent electricity. Surrounding the central settlement are others like it, some with slightly more developed housing. Recently, hundreds of refugee tents have sprouted in the vicinity of Bethan, some erected in the scrub desert across the road from the village, others as far as 50 kilometres down the highway.


    Set back from the front line and its machine gun-mounted pickups and NATO air strikes, Bethan is where thousands of east Libyans – from Ras Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya and elsewhere – have fled the destruction wrought by the unconventional war between longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi and his opponents. It’s a waypoint for families escaping farther east and overcrowded, uncomfortable homes for those with no other place to go.

    'I will die here'

    On the edge of Bethan, through a metal door marked with a red crescent in a sand-coloured wall, sits a small medical clinic. The clinic is bare, but it has the rare blessing of constant electricity: Fluorescent lights illuminate the dirt-smudged linoleum floor, and a dentist's chair reclines with power from a gas generator sitting on the floor nearby. Men, women and children come and go from the first aid room, where a standard kitchen refrigerator stores a horde of medicine. The clinic is manned by two Libyan doctors and an Egyptian who, after 30 years, calls Libya home.

    Mohamed Dia el-Din was born in the vast desert of the New Valley governorate in southwest Egypt in 1951. He moved to Libya when he was 30. Like tens of thousands of Egyptians who made a similar journey, he migrated west expecting better pay and a good life, courtesy of Gaddafi's vast oil economy. But within a few years, el-Din discovered that life in the Brother Leader’s socialist "state of the masses" wasn't what he expected. Libya was in the process of ostracising the West through its radical foreign policy and support for violent extremist groups. Housing was limited and of poor quality, and the country’s dysfunctional, corrupt government made salaries far lower than those in the booming Gulf countries. Egyptian doctors weren't interested in coming to Libya anymore.

    But el-Din and his family settled in the east. In 2006, the skinny, bespectacled, slightly stooped and half-toothless doctor joined a polyclinic in Ajdabiya, behind a bank between Brega and Tripoli streets.

    El-Din, an Egyptian who has lived in Libya for 30 years, works and sleeps at the Bethan clinic [Evan Hill]

    "I've lived here for so long, I don't know how to live anywhere else," el-Din said. "I will die here, and I will live here."

    On March 15, el-Din and his family escaped from Ajdabiya in the face of the regime's advance. Four days later, loyalist soldiers entered the outskirts of Benghazi, the opposition capital 160 kilometres to the north, where Gaddafi had promised to hunt down opposition fighters house by house. That night, before bloody street battles between the two sides could begin in earnest, foreign air strikes devastated Gaddafi's advancing columns and opened the main coastal road for pro-democracy forces, who retook Ajdabiya days later.

    El-Din returned on March 28 to find his ground-floor flat ransacked. The doorknob on his broken front door had been sprayed with gunfire. The overpowering smell of rotten food made el-Din frightened that he would find dead bodies inside. He suspected Gaddafi troops had come looking for gold, cash and weapons. Mattresses were torn from beds, and the wooden bed frames shattered. Two television sets, an air conditioner, a cable receiver and an ice maker had been stolen. Upstairs, where a Syrian-Egyptian family lived across from their Libyan neighbours, the flats lay untouched, but there was no sign of the occupants.

    El-Din set off to join the refugees in Bethan, where he had once worked in 2004. The village, usually home to around 2,000 people, had swelled to twice that size. Chest infections, a common problem due to the bad weather and allergic reactions to the dust, spread quickly in the overcrowded community, where as many as five or six families now shared a single house. The refugees encountered other typical Bethan ailments: scabies, spread from local camel and sheep herds; hearing problems, from swirling sand clogging up ear canals; and stomach disorders, due to poor sanitation and the local diet.

    'War crimes'

    Though the initial rush of those fleeing the war has subsided, nearly 500 refugees officially remain, and many more may live in Bethan off the registers. According to one aid supply manifest, 187 people live in refugee tents in Bethan, and 102 people live in a school that has been converted into a shelter. The remainder are squeezed into shared houses.

    At least six people in the village have died of natural causes since the uprising began, el-Din said. There are also signs of war. Two young men suffering from shrapnel or gunshot wounds died in the clinic. Two weeks ago, a third man arrived with his hands cuffed behind his back and his neck slit. His body had been found with three others, each killed in a similar fashion, after a skirmish in Ajdabiya. It was thought he had been kidnapped earlier and killed by loyalist troops during the fighting.

    "It’s war crimes," el-Din said. "Really."

    Government troops have not been spotted around Bethan since the start of the fighting, and opposition fighters are rarely seen, save for an occasional armed pick-up truck passing down the desert road. But the village is unguarded, its only protection a metal gate that swings across the dirt path leading from the highway to the clinic. Rebels have set up checkpoints up the road, near Ajdabiya, but the other direction lies open. Families have moved to the other tent settlement, dozens of kilometres farther into the desert, because they feel more safe the farther they move from the fighting, el-Din said, and also to escape the overcrowding.

    The Bethan clinic is struggling but stable. Doctors need more anti-scabies and anti-rheumatic medicine, as well as cough syrup and multivitamins, but the pharmacy storage building and first aid rooms both burst with drugs and saline drips. Volunteers have managed to keep the clinic well supplied with regular shipments from major hospitals in Benghazi and deliveries across the border from Egypt to Tobruk.

    The clinic's biggest problem is not a lack of medicine but of expertise. El-Din is a general practitioner. His colleague, Mustafa al-Wafidi, specialises in gastrointestinal medicine. Both men are capable of performing simple surgeries – el-Din has removed abscesses and stitched superficial cuts – but neither could handle a serious wound. The clinic has no dentists and no gynaecologists. Two women have gone into labour while living in Bethan; both were sent to Ajdabiya to deliver.

    El-Din, Wafidi, and their colleagues – another Libyan doctor, two residents and three nurses – are working under the hopeful assumption that they will be paid. El-Din last received his monthly salary of 1,600 dinars in January, but since the east fell into open warfare, the checks have stopped. A banker friend has told him that the opposition Transitional National Council in Benghazi has taken over salary payments in the east, relying on a large cash reserve in the Jamahiriya Bank, and will pay wages if he can present his most recent check stub as proof. But el-Din hasn't’t tried to withdraw any money since January. In truth, he and the other doctors are volunteers, relying on charity.

    El-Din's days begin at 8:00 with a queue of patients to examine. Six hours later, he takes a two-hour break to rest and eat lunch, then returns to work until midnight. During his midday break, he can be seen sitting on the floor of his darkened laboratory room, leaning back against the blanketed cot where he sleeps at night, watching television on a small set that sits facing him on a chair, eating lunch from a small array of metal plates on the ground.

    Deciding to stay

    Sitting inside the clinic one recent afternoon was one of el-Din’s beneficiaries, 44-year-old Mikael al-Fakhri, a petroleum engineer who worked for the government-owned Sirte Oil Company in Brega before fleeing east to Bethan. Fakhri and his wife, Mariam, correctly believed that Brega's strategic importance would make it a target for both sides.

    They and their five children left Brega on March 13. By the time they escaped, as Gaddafi’s troops rolled eastward toward Benghazi with ease, Brega had already endured bombardments and sporadic raids from loyalist soldiers who fired randomly, but with deadly effect. One attack on the western edge of the key oil port earlier in March killed a boy shepherding a flock of sheep and injured his two brothers.

    Mikael al-Fakhri, his son Ayman and his wife Mariam fled Ajdabiya to Bethan, where Mariam decided to stay to volunteer as a nurse [Evan Hill]

    When the family first arrived at Bethan, they sought out the clinic to find someone with a syringe. Ayman, Fakhri’s five-year-old son, nearly suffocated at birth when his umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck. The lack of oxygen caused permanent brain damage. Ayman can't walk, and his speech is slurred. He takes an injection of the drug Cerebrolysin every Tuesday to help support his cognitive functioning.

    The family found a syringe, but Mariam, who was trained as a nurse in Ajdabiya eight years ago, discovered that nobody in the community knew how to deliver vaccinations. She gave Ayman the injection herself.

    "The next thing you know, there was a huge line of people needing it," Fakhri said. "So she said, 'You know what, let’s stay here'."

    Fakhri's family now lives in a house owned by his cousin, who moved his family to Abyar, a small town 60 kilometres east of Benghazi. Fakhri and Mariam could leave Bethan as well, and nobody would blame them. Fakhri’s father and brothers came to live with the family recently but left after two weeks, unable to bear more of the subsistence desert living. Most of Fakhri’s family lives in Benghazi, and Ayman would receive better physical therapy there. But the family has chosen to stay.

    "I’m volunteering here now. I have to. If I don’t help now, when will I?" Mariam said. "When the situation gets better here, I’ll go back to Benghazi, [but] I come every morning and I find the women and children waiting for me."

    Conditions in Bethan are hard, and Ayman and his brothers and sister are not’t used to the rough life. They whine, complain, and beg for candies, chocolates, and hamburgers. They ask to be taken to Benghazi.

    There is no gas in the village to fuel anyone’s stove, so the Fakhris cook over fires built with wood and coal. Electricity returned to the village on Sunday, but it was off for the previous five days. The family is forced to do without most of their possessions and necessities, which they left in Brega, thinking the uprising against Gaddafi would play out in a few weeks, like the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

    "Even our clothes, we didn't bring that many clothes. We brought things for about two or three days,” Mariam said.

    Relative comfort

    The Fakhris usually wake up at around 8:00 to a breakfast of tea, bread, and cheese. At 10:00, they go to the clinic. Mariam works, and the children play with their friends. In the afternoon, they get together again for lunch, usually some kind of stew, and then Mariam joins another nurse to tend to infants in the village.

    "At night, we sleep, but we’re not getting anything from the sleep, we’re just closing our eyes," Fakhri said.

    But with a house of their own and the knowledge that their relatives are safe, the Fakhris live a comparatively comfortable life. Down a dirt road from the clinic, a tired-looking man with a short beard and closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair leaned on the door of a car as he explained to a reporter that his family had fled from Ras Lanuf, around 200 kilometres away, and was now sharing two houses with 70 other people from five other families – women in one house, men in the other. He declined to give his name, saying he feared repercussions for missing family members.

    Farther down the road, on the edge of Bethan, lies house 67, a typically bare, door-less, concrete shelter.  Inside, around a dozen men sat and squatted on mattresses and blankets laid out in a living room that measured perhaps 25 square metres. They ranged from teen-aged youth to octogenarian elders. On one side, a television cable snaked through a boarded-up window across to a similarly blocked window on the adjacent wall, and down into a small television set broadcasting Al Jazeera Arabic. Outside the living room, the wind blew in through the open doorway. This is where they sleep.

    The men declined to identify their family name for fear of retribution against their tribe, but they said 80 relatives were living in three houses divided between the younger men, the older men, and the women. The family has lived in Ajdabiya for generations but fled more than a month ago, after Grad rockets and mortars began raining down on the town.

    Internalising combat

    The young men's house in Bethan has no bathroom or plumbing, and like the Fakhris, the men living there cook over coal and wood fires. Their water supply, kept in ground wells, is often low, but not dangerously so, and they can buy more from the tanker trucks that visit Bethan regularly. Their electricity is intermittent, and they share their television cable with the two other houses, at times disconnecting it and threading it back out through the window for someone else’s use.

    Bethan, with no paved roads, no plumbing and intermittent electricity, resembles nothing so much as a construction site [Evan Hill]

    "At first it was OK, but now people are getting sick of it," said 59-year-old Habib Hussein. "We'd rather live in tents than this. It's not sanitary. The only reason we're here now is the wind and the dust."

    When the rockets landed in Ajdabiya, Hussein said, they hit civilian areas indiscriminately. Many of the family homes were damaged in the bombardments and the street-to-street fight for the town in March. The children now flinch whenever they hear loud bangs, and they have internalised the combat in other ways as well.

    "Before, they had their tanks and toys, they wanted to be a policeman or a fireman or a doctor, now they want to be revolutionaries," Hussein said. "They’ll re-enact battles they hear about on the news."

    Seven young men in the family have died or been kidnapped in the fighting. Other relatives who were separated during the bombing have been unable to reach one another.

    "They may be in Benghazi, they may be in Ajdabiya, they may be dead," said Youssef Omar, 55.

    The children, he said, shouldn’t be exposed to "death and warfare and all these kind of things they’ve seen. But we're leaving it in God’s hands."

    History full of war

    Despite their circumstances, the family still managed to present a visitor with an ornate plate of small, china cups filled with hot, strong coffee. They were stoic about their tribulations. God would decide how long they must stay in the camp, they said. In the meantime, their fellow Libyans – opening their homes and sharing their food and medicine – had treated the family with more honour in one month than Gaddafi had in 41 years.

    Gaddafi’s cruelty had also united the tribes, they said. Whereas "trivial" disputes dating back years may have long divided them, debts and dishonours, car accidents and killings apparently had been forgiven, at least for the moment, in the effort to confront Gaddafi.

    "He’s always talking about democracy and human rights for other people," Omar said. "But he doesn't’t even have an ounce of that for his own people."

    One of the elders sitting nearby spoke up:

    "Libyan history is full of war. We fought the Italians, the British, even the Americans in Tripoli. This is nothing new to us. But someone from our own country attacking us, this is new."

    In front of house 67, on the edge of the empty desert, the family had parked a beat-up sedan, their only car. The men said they had never benefited from any of Libya’s oil money, most of which was sucked into the coffers of the Gaddafi family and spread around to loyal members of the regime. The very existence of Bethan and its surrounding villages is the product of that corrupt system, said Faraj Younis, a manager at the clinic. Local members of Gaddafi’s powerful and pseudo-governmental revolutionary committees, the lijan thawriya, built the settlements with money budgeted for community housing. But rather than finish the job adequately, they shortchanged the project, leaving unfinished, decrepit homes and pocketing the remainder of the cash.

    Nevertheless, Hussein and said his family was recording each piece of donated medicine, food and clothing they received from the Transitional National Council and private citizens, hoping to pay them back when the fighting ended.

    Nobody knows when that will be, but for the displaced denizens of Bethan, the moment can’t come soon enough.

    On Friday, el-Din will travel back to Egypt again to visit his family, deliver some of his salary to them, and rest. But Libya, his adopted home, won’t be far from his mind.

    "When I was in Egypt, I was crying. I was- It’s a bad feeling, bad feeling,” he said. "I looked into the eyes of the small babies and small children and said why, for what? Your people say get out, you must get out. Why are you staying … how can you rule a people who said go?"

    Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    Cricket World Cup 2019 Quiz: How many runs can you score?

    Cricket World Cup 2019 Quiz: How many runs can you score?

    Pick your team and answer as many correct questions in three minutes.

    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states have launched more than 19,278 air raids across Yemen.

    Remembering Chernobyl

    Remembering Chernobyl

    The fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion remains as politicised as ever, 28 years on.