Libya and Tunisia: Open borders, Humanity at work

Article I wrote for The Huffington Post, Published on 05/16/2011


Today’s date is noteworthy. It is the 13th Friday since the uprising began in Libya on February 17. Being Friday the 13th, it’s particularly significant if you believe in superstitions — and Libyans tend to.

Libyan aid workers here joked about it being a “Black day” for Gaddafi, and on Twitter and Facebook people posted comments aboutGaddafi’s love of the paranormal and apparent obsession with black magic. Some called him a “Jinni,” whose supernatural powers allowed him to hold on to power all these years.

Whether Gaddafi has supernatural-like powers, is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy is subject to interpretation; what isn’t is the havoc he’s wreaked on Libya, and the insurmountable death toll and refugee crisis taking place.

Over the past three weeks, working with refugees along the Tunisian border with Libya, I’ve been able to see that destruction first-hand. Yesterday, in a visit to the Remada refugee camp, I saw additional units being built to accommodate the ever-increasing flow of refugees. The camp is designed for 950 people, and at its peak it sheltered 2,000 Libyans. I’ve managed to find peace amidst the chaos by listening to the refugees, dignified in their struggle, recount stories of resistance, which ultimately are powered by their very real belief in the Supernatural, or the complete surrender to the “will of God.”

The majority of the refugees I interact with have either seen people killed, or heard about it from friends and residents in their town. They often quote a verse from the Holy Quran, “To God we belong and to him we will return,” and wonder if Gaddafi thinks he can outdo God. “Does he not know the fate of Pharaoh who oppressed his people?” they ask, citing Mussolini and Hitler and Ceausescu for emphasis that evil dictators have an expiration date.

Their stories about escaping Libya are hard to fathom. It is a miracle they made it out at all, and many families fled with Gaddafi forces on their tail. Refugees from Zintan, a city in Libya’s western mountains, which was the first to stand with Benghazi, where the uprising began, dodged daily bombardment of rockets fired by Gaddafi forces. A woman I spoke with related a story of a grad rocket falling a few feet from her head during her sleep. “At that moment, I just called on Allah,” she said, smiling at her luck. “If I’m meant to die, it is what God has written for me.” All the women in her family all said they didn’t try to run or hide, but rather, “surrendered to God and hoped for the best.”

Over the past four months, the world has seen the brutality of the Gaddafi regime as it kidnapped raped, tortured and killed its own people. In a New York Times op-ed, Mahmoud Jibril, interim prime minister of the Transitional National Council, saysLibyans know it is their fight to win, but the international community can continue to help alleviate Libya’s humanitarian struggle. Jibril estimates 11,000 people have been killed, and 750,000 have fled the country, primarily to Egypt and Tunisia.

Here in Tunisia, credited with the rebirth of Arab Nationalism because of its Jasmine Revolt that shook the Arab World, there is deep concern for Libya’s welfare. Tunisians here overwhelmed us with their enthusiasm to help shelter and feed Libyans, and in their genuine concern for the wellbeing of Libyan refugees. Before aid organizations had a chance to organize themselves, regular Tunisians, not aided by their government began helping the refugees coming in. From young men in fruit stands, to the friendly hotel staff, to the border police, to the Tunisians who’ve opened up their home to Libyans, the message is always: We are brothers.

At Remada camp I spoke with local Tunisian women aid workers from Taawun, a humanitarian organization working closely with UNHCR to alleviate the refugee crisis. Over a giant dish of macaroni, Tunisian salad and harissa, (standard food at the camp) they all sympathized with the struggle, but complained about the long hours, lack of appreciation and sexual harassment. Yet, when Dursaf Hmidi, a 23-year-old Islamic studies graduate said, “We are doing this for God, and in that lies the reward,” they all nodded in agreement.

Tunisians are humanitarians. The fact that a 26-year-old man would take his own life sparked their revolution. They believe in human dignity, and here on the border they demonstrate it constantly. Libyans here ponder ways of repaying them when Gaddafi leaves and Tunisians say it’s not necessary, because Libyans have helped them in the past. Libyans and Tunisians are neighbors with a shared history and culture and knack for deliciously spicy food. Over the years, the neighbors crossed each others borders freely, for work and leisure. They often settled in their respective backyards and intermarried. Here in the border region, where tourism depends on large part from Libyans, the dialect is closer to Libyan accent in Tripoli than it is to Tunisian accent from the capitol.

Even in the capitol, now overwhelmed with Libyans, I often encountered Tunisians who lived in Libya or had family that did.

Whether you define it as practical or spiritually, the truth is Tunisia depends on Libya for its own well-being and vice versa.


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