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Escaping from Libya

 Surprise (Switzerland) 27 June 2019

Thousands of refugees from war-torn Libyan cities are coming into Tunisia and Egypt. The majority of them are migrant workers from sub-Saharan African countries. Fred Lauener joined the humanitarian first aid actions in a refugee camp at the Egyptian border. (1833 Words) - By Fred Lauener


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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener

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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener.

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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener.

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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener.

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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener.

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Refugee camp at the egyptian border.Photo: Fred Lauener.

Our accommodation is a small, simple motel next to the road and a good 100 km from the Libyan border. The road is in good condition, and we managed to commute to work in little over one hour each way. We are a small team of seven people: three Egyptian, two Lebanese, one Irish and one Swiss (me). We have all been sent here by our national Caritas organisations. The group's goal is to offer primary care, including meals, drinking water and essential items for hygiene and health for displaced war victims from Libya.

The last stop before customs is called Salloum; an unassuming place by a secluded bay. Salloum has a little harbour, a train station, two mosques, an army barracks, a market, a drug store, a pub, a coffee shop and a British army cemetery from the Second World War. The only other thing here is sand. The inhabitants have to keep freeing the narrow strip of farmland that lies between the empty beach and the only asphalted road from the desert sand. Behind the sleepy little town a street winds up the hill to the only checkpoint to Libya, the Sallloum Land Port. In times of peace heavy trucks pass through here, business people in modern limousines, and occasionally even a few tourists.

Since March everything has changed. The Egyptian military greenish-brown tanks and trucks and the white off roaders from international organisations dominate the scenery. The coaches in the car park are not those of holiday makers, but belong to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). There are taxis lurking there too, waiting for customers. God knows there would certainly be no shortage of them. Hundreds, and some days thousands of exhausted souls arrive at the border every night, displaced by war and suffering from beyond the barrier. Then they sit or lie here on their sparse luggage and wait for the approval of the border guards to continue their journey to the nearest airport in one of the cars in the car park. Most of the refugees come from countries which need a visa to enter Egypt. Many of them have no papers at all, and have been sitting here for weeks. Day and night are spent under the open sky, because the Egyptian government does not want to create a long-term camp situation, and therefore does not allow tents at the checkpoint. A hall has been provided for families with children, the elderly and those in poor health only. During the day the 35 degree sun beats down on Salloum, but at night the temperature sinks to just over zero.

Migrant workers- the constant suspects

After a stream of police and military checkpoints we finally arrive. The first task is the distribution of breakfast. We have prepared the packages with bread, cheese, tuna fish, juice and fruit bars the night before.

Something is different about today. A large group of young men from Chad are sitting in front of the distribution point of the little hut with water and electricity, and they are blocking the entrance. The man they have elected as their speaker tells us they have been on hunger strike since last night. The only way they would stop, is if their ambassador came to guarantee they could get away from here. "Bring us the ambassador!" chants the group, banging the ground with their hands. The Chadians are by far the largest group at Salloum land port. Young men, some still boys really, brought from Libya as cheap migrant workers, now fear for their lives. Because anyone male, young and black is immediately suspected of being a mercenary of the Gaddafi-regime.

The first attempts of passing out breakfast are thwarted by the hunger strikers. That does not sit well with one of the groups of men, who are coming at the distribution point with sticks. We can feel a riot coming on. A few soldiers rush over, one shoots a warning into the air. The wranglers are separated. Because of the situation we have delayed two truckloads of food and supplies by one hour later, so that we can unload the goods in peace.

The morning is almost over. At 11:30 we find out in a coordination meeting, that well over 1000 people have reached the camp since yesterday. A doctor just arriving back from Libya tells us that there are still many thousands on their way, but there are only a few Libyans amongst them. Many natives of the shelled towns have left home, but would also have found shelter in nearby villages, sometimes in schools, or even with complete strangers willing to take them in. This information corresponds with our own observations. The Libyans do not want to leave. Having said that, we do see a lot of vehicles with Libyan number plates arriving. Some are driving to relatives in Egypt, and want to return at a later date. Some just turn around once they get to the border after a few hours' sleep in the car, which makes them more confident, or maybe even braver.

We are relieved when we find out that a representative of the Chadian embassy is on his way here. Many members of the hunger strike group (almost two thousand souls) have been here for two weeks or more. The unrest grows. Incidents like the one at the breakfast distribution are mounting.

A dog's life

Jeanne from Caritas in Lebanon and our two Mohammeds, one responsible for logistics, the other our driver, are waiting in the car when I come out of the lecture. We want to visit the two only Palestinians who are waiting at the compound. They are a long way away, which is why we are driving. Palestinians are not welcome in Egypt. The border guards are denying them the right to even set foot in the customs grounds, and have found them a spot way out in the long stretches of no-man's-land. They are called Samer and Maryam. Samer is Maryam's father. He originally comes from the Gaza strip, but has lived and worked in Libya for 36 years. His three children, two sons and a daughter grew up there. His wife is no longer alive. His children are all long grown up. Ten days ago the seventy-year-old started his journey from Benghazi heading for Egypt. He is not as good on his feet as he used to be. He wanted to get out while there was still time, before the city was surrounded by government troops. His daughter Maryam is with him. His two sons stayed behind, one in Tripoli, one in Benghazi.

Samer and Maryam arrived in Salloum a week ago, and are now stuck here. The spot allocated to them is hard stone. It has a shelter, but they are not allowed inside. Not even when it rains. A dog's life. We bring Samer and Maryam food twice a day, check their health and stay with them a little while to talk to them, and to listen. Samer is an educated man and speaks good English. He uses my mobile phone to try to call his sons. Calls to Tripoli always work, and they last for quite some time. Samer can't contact his son in Bengazi anymore, because the mobile telephone network has collapsed. Yesterday the UNO- Refugee Relief Organisation UNHCR told us that a solution has finally been found with the authorities and Samer and Miryam can soon make their way on the last stretch of the journey home. Now every time we bring the two Palestinians breakfast, we hope they aren't there anymore.

A plaster as a sun-hat

Our depot is buzzing like a bee-hive. As we arrive Donel, the Irishman of our group, comes towards us. It seems that a load of thousands of hygiene sets has just been delivered, and now a truck load of bananas and oranges needs to be unloaded. The fruit is a donation from exiled Libyans in the United Arab Emirates and the hygiene sets were sent from an international organisation for us to distribute. Mohammed, our logistician, mobilises a few volunteers of the Egyptian Red Crescent and a Handful of Chadian refugees who don't mind helping out, and begins packing the fruit into portion sacks. Meanwhile Donal and I get busy with the hygiene sets.

The items sorted into "ladies" and "gentlemen" categories include toothbrushes, disinfectant soap, socks, sanitary pads for women, razors for men - all indispensable for Europeans, but we doubt that the many Africans in the camp will see it the same way, as they will be seeing most of these toiletries for the first time, and won't be able to read the English package leaflets.

We decide to put our theory to the test and grab one of the Chadian helpers. We show him each product and ask him what he would use it for. The result: he guesses that the bottle of disinfectant is perfume, smells it and realises his mistake, but still isn't quite sure what to do with it. He guesses toothpaste when we show him the shaving cream, but when he sees the other tube he correctly decides that this must be the real toothpaste. He would use the toilet paper to dry his hands, and the shampoo as deodorant. He identifies the last item, a packet of sticking plasters as protective head-covering to shield from the sun. We will hand out the hygiene kits tomorrow, but not without the accompanying leaflets. It will be quite a big job, but we can't do it any other way.

Meanwhile the sun hangs low. We will have to be back in our lodgings in an hour at the latest. For security reasons we only drive in daylight. We have just enough time for a head-count. In order for us to plan properly we need to know how many mouths we have to contend with. How many people are currently in the camp, and how many will be waiting in line for breakfast tomorrow? How many women, children and sick or old people are there, who we don't want to keep in the queue? Are there diabetics who can not eat white bread?

The statistical information that we get from customs daily is not exact. We can't blame them for it though. How can the officers create proper statistics when refugees register two, three, or sometimes even four times, each time with one of their many forenames, in the hopes of somehow improving their chances to be chosen for the next bus. Because they all only want one thing: out.


Fred Lauener is a former editor of the Swiss street paper Surprise

Translated from German into English by Claire Thompson

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