Libyan Refugees Stream to Tunisia for Care, and Tell of a Home That Is Torn Apart
Carlotta Gall, The New York Times
9 September 2014
Libyans seeking medical care and a refuge from war are filling the private clinics in this coastal Tunisian city for the second time in three years, bringing with them fresh accounts of the violence racking their country.
Since the revolution three years ago that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, about 1.8 million Libyans — nearly a third of the country’s population — have fled to Tunisia. A new wave of refugees has arrived in recent months as fighting has engulfed the Libyan capital, Tripoli, driven away by random shelling and shooting, as well as shortages of cash, electricity and fuel.
“The country has plunged into the sea,” said Jomaa Abdullah, 68, a farm laborer from near Tripoli who had brought his son for treatment for gunshot wounds. “It’s gone. It’s going to be hard for it to come back.”
The refugees’ accounts of the most recent spasm of fighting make it clear that the violence afflicting Libya is only worsening. While the influx has brought economic opportunity here, it has also raised fears that Libya’s instability will bleed into Tunisia, which is itself grappling with a budding insurgency since a popular uprising threw out the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011.
Hundreds of wounded fighters, from opposing sides, have arrived here since August. Relatives of the injured sit hunched over, smoking cigarettes in clusters in hospital parking lots. One fighter lounged in the back seat of a car, his wounded leg and crutches propped up beside him. Civilians caught in the crossfire or injured in shelling have sought treatment here, too.
Most of the wounded men are from army units in Tripoli and the militias from around Zintan, a region in western Libya, that were guarding installations like the airport and fuel depot in the capital, both of which were destroyed.
They were attacked by rival militias from the powerful city-state of Misurata and their Islamist allies. As the fighting escalated, the Zintan militias were forced to abandon their posts and the Misuratans now control the capital.
“I was guarding the fuel tanks and I was shot twice in the stomach and wounded from shrapnel on the back,” Munir Ahmed, 34, said.
Mr. Ahmed, a trained soldier in Colonel Qaddafi’s army since the age of 16, had joined the revolution early on. After the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, Mr. Ahmed’s revolutionary brigade became part of a new national army. He was with a unit of just 10 men who were guarding the vast oil storage tanks in Tripoli when a militia attacked the installation.
“They bombed the vehicles as we were fleeing, and the cars caught fire,” Mr. Ahmed said. “The people with me were all killed. Just one survived,” though his leg was amputated.
The opposing militiamen were black-clad Islamists, who accused the soldiers of being infidels even though they were all Muslims, he said. “We want stability,” Mr. Ahmed said, “and these people who are wearing black masks are saying: ‘God is our Lord’ and telling us, ‘You don’t have a Lord.’ ”
Wounded civilians described the conflict bluntly as a power struggle between the militias.
“Three years after Libya was liberated, the Zintanis want to rule, and the Misuratans want to rule. It’s a struggle for power,” said Muhammad Meftah Essid Feres, 33, who was shot in the legs while driving home from a farm near the airport.
“They destroyed the airport, and it is not only their airport, it is everyone’s airport,” he said. “It is not even a good airport, not like Dubai, or the Emirates, but now the whole population is without an airport. People are having to drive four hours to the border.”
Some of the shelling has hit civilian homes and forced people to abandon whole neighborhoods near the airport.
Three women, one who was pregnant, and a 3-year-old boy were killed in late July when a stray rocket crashed into a house about six miles from the Tripoli airport. The owner of the house, Ghaith Gneb, 75, a former police officer, said that the rocket smashed through the wall and exploded in the courtyard of the house. “It was not dangerous in our area,” he said. “This rocket came randomly.”
His daughter, Hanan Gneb, 32, a schoolteacher, was badly burned by the blast and is almost completely blind. His sister-in-law, Dhiba Nejah, was sliced across the chest by shrapnel. The two women sat opposite each other on their beds in Errachid Clinic, their limbs and heads still bandaged after a month of care. “Reality makes you brave,” Ms. Gneb said.
“We wish for peace,” she said. “We wish students can go back to their schools and people go back to their places as soon as possible, and for things to be stable and calm.”
But her father did not see a swift end to the conflict. Their entire community, some 100 families, had fled, Mr. Gneb said. “It is chaos; people fighting for power,” he said.
Some of the refugees had hopes that the newly elected Libyan Parliament could bring a solution. Others said they were waiting for international intervention, as in 2011.
“We friends know if it does not calm down we will not have stability here,” said Ridha Kallel, the Tunisian administrator at Ibn Annafis, the largest private clinic in Sfax. “It needs Western intervention. All the Libyans are waiting for the West.”
Copyright 2014 The New York Times
Featured Image: Syrian refugees in Libya report growing sense of insecurity amidst lawlessness, DPA.
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