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by Ben Barrows
Editor’s note: Penobscot Bay Press has previously published three article series by Ben Barrows: “Odyssey on Ice,” “Dispatches from Azerbaijan” and “Dispatches from Afghanistan.” This column begins a new series in which Barrows documents experiences in Egypt and Libya in his capacity as a humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee.
Libya is engulfed in conflict. Its neighbors Tunisia and Egypt saw popular revolts lead quickly to the overthrow of their longstanding autocratic leaders. When Libya’s uprising began in February, it seemed like the government would certainly fall as others had in the recent extraordinary events in North Africa and the Middle East. However, the tenacious resilience and brutality of Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, has turned the revolution into a protracted armed conflict dividing the country.
More than 300,000 have fled the violence, streaming across the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. International humanitarian organizations have moved to provide essential services and repatriation flights to those fleeing. Tens of thousands of those fleeing are Bangladeshi, who were among the first groups to flee, followed by nationals of sub-Saharan countries, including Chad, Nigeria and Somalia. Many Africans stayed initially because a job in Libya is a better economic opportunity than what they’d find in the home countries. Staying in Libya also gives a better chance of seeking refugee status in Europe.
To aid in pushing back the rebels, Col. Gaddafi hired and armed African mercenaries, which created a backlash against Africans living peacefully in Libya. With battles raging in a number of cities, and pro-government forces pushing eastward, there was increasing hostility towards Africans, based on the suspicion that they were part of or associated with the mercenaries. As the days of fighting continued, more sub-Saharan Africans arrived at the borders.
The fighting and violence created a humanitarian crisis on Libya’s eastern and western borders, but there was very little information about humanitarian needs coming out of Libya itself. The International Rescue Committee activated its emergency team, and deployed personnel to Tunisia and eastern Libya. As the Economic Recovery and Development Advisor on the team, my mission was to understand how economic activity has been affected by the crisis and to evaluate humanitarian needs.
My trip to eastern Libya started with a flight from New York to Cairo, where I had a rendezvous with two emergency team colleagues. After a day of planning we set out early on the morning of Sunday, March 6. Our driver Nabil cheerfully weaved through Cairo traffic at high speeds, honking, swerving and generally driving in a way I might only consider doing myself if my wife were about to give birth in the backseat. I later learned that this sort of road conduct is perfectly normal in Cairo, which explains why I saw a lot of fender-benders.
After escaping the sprawling city of 23 million people, the landscape turned quickly to open desert. For most of the 500 kilometers we drove on the lightly bumpy highway that day we had the Mediterranean to our north and nearly featureless, rocky desert to our south. Small, hard-scrabble, sun-baked wind-scoured towns would come into view, the cluster of concrete houses and shops muted by dust, the cars and donkey carts splashed with mud from puddles left by the previous night’s rain squalls.
In the early afternoon we entered Marsa Matrouh, a seasonal beach town about 200 kilometers from the border. When we arrived we found our route along the sea drive blocked by tanks, armored personnel carriers and Egyptian soldiers with sheathed bayonets fixed to their AK-47s. A handful of local men stood in a group near a barricade and passively regarded the soldiers. It wasn’t clear what was going on, but what did become clear was that Nabil neither knew exactly where to go nor was as emotionally stable as we had originally believed. Despite requests to the contrary, he approached a checkpoint and with a lot of yelling and our grudgingly proffered passports managed to pass. We soon realized we were in a cul-de-sac, which must have flustered Nabil, because on our way out he accelerated at the check point, driving right at an alarmed soldier. When we yelled at him to slow down he started yelling about how he was once in the army and lives in Cairo and is not afraid of the soldiers. We skidded to a stop at the checkpoint, with considerable more attention given to us by the onlookers and other soldiers, who fingered their rifles uncertainly. We decided it was an excellent time to slowly proceed to a lunch break.
After a delicious and restorative lunch in one of the two restaurants open in the off-season, we continued westward. A few kilometers before the border we came upon the town of Sallum, a city of a few thousand inhabitants perched on the shore below the range of hills that roll down into Libya. We stopped at the only hotel we saw a sign for, where we were graciously offered coffee and seats on which to rest our road-weary frames. Shortly after the coffee was delivered, we learned from the proprietor that the rooms were going for about $100 per night. I looked around at the décor and general state of things, and made the conservative guess that we were being overcharged by about $85.
While we drank our coffee and used creative four-letter words to discuss the blatantly opportunistic price among ourselves, a man wearing a UNICEF hat walked into the lobby and soon informed us that most of the humanitarian aid workers were staying in cheaper and more comfortable hotels back in Marsa Matrouh, 200 kilometers back the way we’d come. We finished our coffee and told the proprietor we couldn’t stay the night, but “might be back another day.” The $10 per cup that he charged seemed openly punitive, but it was a ransom worth paying to be free of his seedy clutches.
We decided to continue to the border and return to Marsa Matrouh for the night. After passing through Salloum town we slowly climbed the switchbacks to the plateau on which the border checkpoint was located. We drove by tanks, barbed wire and armed soldiers who waved us through with cursory glances in our vehicle. The road was dead straight, the desert on both sides strewn with litter that rolled, tumbled and trembled in the fierce, cold wind that had greeted us at the top of the hill. Through the blowing sand I could see the buildings and gate structure of the border ahead, and the first few groups of refugees, huddling in their jackets near the few possessions they’d managed to keep in their flight from Libya.