Libya’s civil war, notes from the field

Andrew Purvis in Tunisia

UNHCR’s Andrew Purvis is on the Libyan border, gathering reports about what is going on inside Libya and what is happening with the people who have already fled.

The wind was blowing so hard today it was hard to find a quiet place to talk. The sky turned a metallic gray as dust blocked the sun.   I was talking with some Eritreans who had just arrived here from Libya.

“This is paradise,” one of them suddenly told me  as we rounded a row of tents and were greeted by a new blast of sand. “Air, space, no roof.. This is good!”  The young man had  spent most of the past four years in  a Libyan prison, some of that time  in solitary confinement, suffering torture he said and electric shocks.. Along with 700 other Eritreans, Somalis and other immigrants rounded up by the Ghaddafi regime , he was released three weeks ago and is savoring his freedom in Tunisia.

The lines are shortening  in the camp as more and more Bangladeshis are flown out and the feeding operations are organized  but hundreds of people continue to arrive from the Libyan border, many now from south Sudan. The camp itself continues to expand as new land is cleared. Two weeks ago there was nothing here, just a scrubby plain with a few gum trees. Today it is a sprawling, somehow  orderly expanse of multi national communities..  Bangladeshi refugees have hoisted colorful sirongs,  scraps of cloth, even a pair of pants, high on poles in front of their UNHCR tents to mark the spot where they live. They stream in the wind, like prayer flags in Tibet. Somalis have marked their tent with their flag..

On the way to the camp today we could not stop in town because of some problems yesterday.. so I bought something to eat at the stalls sprouting along the pavement, which are selling mobile phone cards, boiled eggs, fresh carrots, baguette ‘sandwiches’ made out of a reddish meat stew

The camp offers a pretty good picture  of what is happening inside Libya. It’s hard now to travel around inside government held territory. But people arriving daily not only bring reports of where they were. They are  constantly on the phone with their friends and relatives who are still there. Several Ghanaians  pulled me aside today to ask for help for what  happening at the airport in Tripoli, where thousands of migrant workers converged early in the uprising to find a flight home.. It’s been 20 days.  Food is scarce, drinking water is going for nearly two US dollars, triple the old price, and fights are breaking out between Ghanaian and Nigerians over food, he told me,  . At least two people have reportedly been killed. “The conditions that side are too bad..” he said shaking his head.

Another story I heard today: One night early in the uprising, a rumor spread through the Eritrean, Nigerian and entire sub Saharan African community that a ship was coming to the port near Tripoli to take them to safety in Europe. After state TV announced that black Africans were killing Libyans, they all feared a pogrom so they fled for the port. But the hoped-for rescue ship never arrived and instead, around midnight, Ghaddafi’s police swarmed in and arrested several hundred men, women and children, herded them into a nearby prison and left them there for over a week.. Thousand of Eritreans and Somalis are still stuck in the country.