Thursday, March 17, 2011

Libya: From the Field - Impressions from the Tunisian-Libyan border

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. He writes:

There is a line for everything here… for food, for the return of your passport, for water and the latrines, for access to a power outlet to charge your phone. Most of the day is spent waiting.

“There are five stages to your life,” an Eritrean told me. In his case, one of the big ones, marriage and having children, was passing him by. Actually, he said with some urgency, that according to his community's beliefs he, at age 38, he was now “in decline” and really needed to find a wife. Mmm.

The sense of life passing you by is a common refrain among many young refugees I have spoken to, despite the crisis of historical magnitude that they are living through. A teenage girl here observed that most kids her age were getting their education, while she was on the road with no family just trying to survive. How lucky we who are not refugees are to be able to move from place to place even here in the camp on our own, without having to wait for someone else to decide...

I am noticing how, in a few days, a vast multinational community can organize itself. Nationalities are sticking together, though they may have not known each other before, forming committees, making sure each other is informed about tents, knows meal times. I wander over to the Eritrean area, underneath the gum tree and just down from the Tunisian military hospital. The Ghanaians are now over there, beyond the UNICEF latrines. The sifting by nationality is quite natural and driven in part by interests: the Bangladeshis all want to go home, now; the Somalis are desperate not to... Ghanaians want to help their brothers in Tripoli who have been stuck there for weeks. Somalis corralled a power outlet near the Tunisian military hospital and were selling it Bangladeshis for a fee.

The camp’s organization stems partly from cooperation between in the international humanitarian community and Tunisians. Tunisian volunteers responded quickly to the crisis and continue to arrive to help out in many ways. I met a business school professor who had just arrived and was picking up empty milk bottles and other trash along the sandy paths in the camp. She said she traveled here from Tunis to the arid border region to help because she was so angry at what Qadhafi was doing to his own people. This is a regional revolution that Tunisia, after all, began. I am hearing a lot of stories. So many people here are living through a time of heightened drama in their lives.

The discrimination against blacks in Libya that helped propel much of the current exodus is shocking. In buses, it is not uncommon for Libyans of lighter skin to roll down the windows as an African is boarding to “air” the place out… a kind of joke. Sub-Saharan Africans and Libyans of darker complexion are overcharged at stores, I am told. In the street, they are routinely referred to by the Arabic word for “slave,” abid. Gangs continue to roam the streets targeting blacks, stealing what they have, beating any who resist. For proud people who came to Libya to find money to support their families back home, it is a deep humiliation.

When state media announced several weeks ago that black Africans were being hired as mercenaries in Qadhafi’s forces, the entire community knew that latent racism was in danger of becoming a pogrom so most went into hiding or fled for the border. And while several hundred thousand have left, at least 800,000 foreigners are still inside the country.

I had to fly out yesterday. The plane banked over the desert, pale and marked with vast geometric patterns in different shades of brown, and then up and over the white-capped Mediterranean to the Cote D’Azur. I could see why, even on a purely physical level, Europe is so attractive to so many from the less developed world, though its real beauty lies in the choices and freedom it allows for those lucky enough to live here.

— Andrew Purvis for UNHCR