Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Humanitarian Crisis Unfolds in Libya

Villagers Flee Libyan Front Line without Water, Food or Money

By Kim Sengupta in Sauhat
The Independent
Monday, 4 April 2011

The old woman sat cross-legged on a gold and black rug, an attempt to make the tent in the middle of the barren wilderness where she and her family had ended up seem a little bit more like home.

"Gaddafi came to me. I told him: 'we are your neighbours, but we get nothing'. Your revolution has been going on for 20 years but we have no electricity, no water," Malez Mohammed, 84, recalled. "At the time he gave us work, he built us roads. But now he has become mad, his dogs came to the village, they started killing. That is why we had to flee from our houses."

More than 300 people are encamped around them having abandoned their village to escape the brutal strife of this civil war. There is no getting away from the privations they face as refugees in their own country, the hardship set to continue, they think, until the conflict ends.

"There is no water, no electricity, we have little food." Malez Mohammed shook her head. "Many children are sick, we don't know where to take them. A young woman had a baby in this tent, without any medical help."

While the world's focus has been on the military campaign and diplomatic manoeuvrings of the conflict, an acute humanitarian crisis has unfolded with seemingly little being done by the international community.

The UN's World Food Programme has started distributing aid, but almost all its foreign staff are stationed in Benghazi, due to the lack of safety away from the capital of the rebel government.

Yet it is the frontline areas which are, inevitably, the worst affected. The residents of Sauhat were forced to move after missiles flew over their homes and young men from the community were killed and injured. Muammar Gaddafi's troops cut the electricity lines for the area, the water supply dried up after the pumping machine was looted.

The villagers had moved as swiftly as they could with their sheep and camel, their livelihood. Yet their new "home", in a parched landscape, offers little grazing or water. No fodder is available and the herds are being slaughtered to provide the occasional meals of meat to go with the diet of bread and a few vegetables.

The opposition's provisional government needs to prove to its Western sponsors that it can look after the people within what it claims as its jurisdiction, and officials in Benghazi maintain that food and other essential items are being sent to those in need. But at the main distribution centre in Ajdabiya, the only other city left in the hands of the revolutionaries, there is never enough. Saleh Mohammed, a policeman working as a volunteer, said: "We have hundreds of people queuing here. We give them all we have, but at the end we have to turn them away. What can we do?"

Prices have been kept low in the very few shops open in the city, there have been no attempts at profiteering. But in a country where the overwhelming proportion of the working population were state employees, most people have not received salaries for months.

Sauhat is just 25km from Ajdabiya, but, with the city changing hands between the rebels and the regime four times in the last seven weeks – and the roads getting bombed daily, aid has been in short supply.

Mohammed Aregeh, the headman, said: "Now we are even further away and we have to bring everything, including water, across the land. We do not want to go back to our village because it is still not safe, so we have to stay here, even though there are 50 men sleeping in this tent alone.

"But the Gaddafi men have been pushed back to Brega and there is now the opportunity for the people in Benghazi to send us more food. They are sending weapons on the road every day so perhaps they can send food as well."

Sarhim Bel Qassim wonders if there will be more help coming. "We have France, America, Britain helping us in the war. Gaddafi would have still been in control here if their planes had not bombed his army. And, for that, we are very grateful. But we are civilians and it will be so good if we got some help as well. Things are very hard now, I would go and buy food because we do not want to see children go hungry. But I have not had my pension in months and do not know when I will get any money again."

The children at the camp do not have schools to go to. They had been shut by the provisional government because of an alleged threat of pupils being turned into "human shields" by regime "fifth columnists". Ahmed Ibadullah, 17, wants to join the rebels. "I tried to get to the front but at the moment they are stopping anyone without a gun going forward. But I will get a gun and I will join them. Why not, what is the point of living like this? It is better to die fighting."

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