Libyan exiles worry about relatives left behind

AP News
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Posted: Apr 11, 2011 6:33 AM
Libyan exiles worry about relatives left behind

Thousands of Libyans who have fled civil war in their homeland now live in limbo in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, worried about relatives left behind, struggling as money runs out and wondering if they'll ever be able to go home.

Some 100,000 Libyans have crossed into neighboring countries since fighting erupted between rebels and leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces nearly two months ago. Migration officials say much of that border traffic is routine and goes both ways.

However, hundreds of women and children in the past week fled to Tunisia by taking back roads through the Libyan desert, trying to avoid Gadhafi's men. East of Libya, instant communities of exiles have sprung up in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria and the coastal resort of Mersa Matrouh, where thousands have received aid and some 500 Libyan families found temporary refuge in vacant holiday apartments.

The exiles spend their days watching TV, hungry for news from home, and worrying.

"Our psychological state has paralyzed us," said Nasser Abdel Rahim, a chemical engineer and father of eight. "We really can't do anything."

Abdel Rahim's two oldest children, ages 19 and 20, remain trapped in the Libyan town of Misrata, controlled in large part by the rebels but under siege by Gadhafi's men. He last heard from them March 18.

He also was separated from some of his other children in late February, having left them at home in the oil town of Ras Lanouf so he could pick up his wife, who had just given birth in another town. On their way back from the hospital, the road was blocked by Gadhafi's fighters.

Eventually, the family was reunited in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, where they stayed with a relative. On March 19, Gadhafi's forces shelled the area; nearby houses were leveled, several residents were badly hurt by shrapnel and several of Abdel Rahim's children were cut by glass shards.

After that experience, the family packed up and moved to Alexandria, where Abdel Rahim has rented an apartment. He's concerned not only about his oldest children, but about his wife's parents, who are still in Libya, and about money. He left Libya with $3,300 but is almost broke now, though charities and volunteers on the way out offered food and places to stay.

The uprising that began with mass protests against Gadhafi in mid-February has hit a deadlock, with no end in sight. Gadhafi's troops control most of Libya's west, the rebels much of the east, and while the front line keeps shifting in the middle, neither side has been able to win the upper hand since international airstrikes began last month.

For Libyans in rebel-controlled areas in the east, Egypt is a natural destination: The road is open, they don't need visas and many have family there.

In the absence of organized aid groups, tribal relations along the Mediterranean coast between Libya and Egypt have oiled the passage of families fleeing the violence. Tribal delegations wait at the Saloum border crossing and offer refugees the telephone numbers of volunteers in Mersa Matrouh. There, volunteers have resettled hundreds of Libyan families.

"They don't let us spend our money," said Abu Omar, a 42-year-old civil servant from Benghazi who fled with his wife and four children to Mersa Matrouh. "They get us food, transport us, they take the children to doctors. They even organized a play day for the children.

"The pharmacist wouldn't let me even pay for my son's medicine. He said it was a gift from the Egyptian people. We are grateful," he said.

In Mersa Matrouh, the Mediterranean resort about 140 miles (220 kilometers) from the Libyan border, a local tribal leader, Farag al-Abed, has helped organize food and shelter for about 8,000 Libyan exiles. He said many fled during the eastward advance of Gadhafi's army last month, before the international community stepped in.

Local residents supplied about 450 vacant vacation rentals, many of them for free, though landlords told al-Abed they need the apartments back by May when tourists return for the season. He said Mersa Matrouh residents have also collected food staples, including rice, sugar, oil and tea, for distribution to the Libyan visitors.

Al-Abed said many of the children seem to suffer from trauma, jumping at sudden noises. He said the wounded among the new arrivals are transferred to hospitals in Alexandria because the coastal resort is not equipped to treat them.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Shahin, who is coordinating medical treatment of the Libyans in Alexandria, said his hospital has dealt with about 50 Libyan patients, most of them suffering from burns or bullet or shrapnel wounds. Two of the patients have died. Shahin said many Alexandria doctors work for free, while donations help cover the cost of some operations.

Since mid-February, about 53,500 Libyans have entered Egypt and 47,000 have crossed into Tunisia, according to the International Organization for Migration, which monitors border traffic.

That's in addition to nearly 400,000 migrant workers from Egypt, Africa and Asia who have fled Libya since the start of the crisis. Many have been evacuated from transit points in Tunisia and Egypt, but thousands more remain in border tent camps, waiting for flights home.

The influx of the migrants has put a further strain on the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, at the time when the two countries _ at the vanguard of the Arab world's uprisings _ are undergoing a difficult period of political transition. The Libyan refugees in Egypt are less of an issue because they are largely being supported by volunteers.

Many of the Libyans who leave end up returning. For example, 1,700 Libyans entered Tunisia on Thursday, while 900 returned home that day, some carrying provisions and medicine, said Mongi Slim, an official in Tunisia's Red Crescent.

However, there are also signs of Libyans crossing into Tunisia because they fear for their lives. On Thursday, more than 320 Libyans, mostly families, drove to Tunisia via a small road near the border town of Dehiba, Slim said.

Slim said accounts from the families, who fled after bombing in Libyan cities like Zintan and Nalut, led the Red Crescent to believe that other families would try to cross into Tunisia in the same area in coming days. Aid officials said they are heading to Dehiba with tents and other supplies.

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Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.