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Inside the Shusha Refugee Camp

Libya’s Aftermath Spills Into Tunisia

by VIKEN CHETERIAN

Dinesh Thalpawila said that Shusha camp was a legend, but it was hard to understand what he meant at first. The camp is in south Tunisia seven kilometres from the Libyan border, between the Mediterranean-edge highway and the desert. As the Libyan uprising turned into armed conflict, refugees poured into Tunisia. The Libyan refugees rented apartments or went to hotels and the Tunisian army set up a field hospital near a military camp for those refugees who had been foreign workers in Libya. This eventually turned into Shusha.

When I visited, 3,448 refugees still lived there. Thalpawila, who works for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and is the camp’s manager, said: “Now we call it a five-star camp.” It is very well organised, divided into sectors for Somalis, Darfurians (separate from the rest of the Sudanese), Nigerians and a mixed sector. There is a central kitchen, a space for children with a school and nursery, and another for adults with library and language classes.

Everyone in Shusha wanted to tell their story. I met Musa Maqusi, a Palestinian born in a Gaza refugee camp who had escaped from Libya as he was worried about his pregnant wife; their daughter was born in Shusha. I met an Iraqi woman from Basra whose daughter had died in the camp: she asked Thalpawila to help her get permission to go outside the camp to find the grave (the Tunisian military do not allow inmates to leave). There was an 18-year-old Somali who had escaped Mogadishu to seek work in Libya, where he was kidnapped by soldiers and badly beaten: in hospital a doctor found he had a kidney missing. He also has a leg wound. He hoped he could go to Norway for medical treatment.

“When we first went to Shusha, it was chaotic. It lacked infrastructure, and there was no water, sanitation or medical care,” said Hafed bin Milad, a doctor and Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) volunteer who worked in the camp. In March and April 2011, up to 20,000 refugees per day were crossing into Tunisia. Some had been robbed by Gaddafi’s border guards. The camp was built during the fighting at a location deliberately near a Tunisian military camp, and close by the main Tunisia-Libya road. It was a poor location, and the influx of communities with different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds was bound to cause friction. But something had to be done, and Shusha was the result.

Steven Loyst, an aid worker from Canada who arrived in Tunisia in April 2011 to support the Red Crescent’s activities, realised the difficulties: “The Red Crescent has the capacity to run operations on the scale of a refugee camp for maybe five or six months. After that it becomes problematic.”

The enthusiasm of the 496 TRC volunteers, and the solidarity and support of local people, helped avoid a catastrophe. The young Tunisian volunteers were culture shocked by the arrival of the international agencies. “There was so much missing in the camp, and the agency people were living in four-star hotels, travelling in four-wheel drives,” said Milad. “From then on, the volunteers started wondering what they too would get from this operation.”

At the height of the refugee flow, Shusha and other camps were full of refugees frustrated by the chaotic conditions. On 20 May 2011 there was a fire, probably accidental, which killed four Eritrean refugees. The next day angry refugees demonstrated and blocked the main road to Libya. The people in the nearby border town of Ben Garden live by smuggling, chiefly cheap Libyan petrol into Tunisia (jerrycans line the roadsides in the town). But the war, the refugees and the military presence stopped this traditional trade, and the demonstration by the refugees was the last straw. Hundreds of Ben Garden inhabitants, armed with sticks and even rifles, attacked the camp, beat the refugees and killed two. By the time they left, more than 80% of the camp had been burned down.

Dinesh Thalpawila said: “When I arrived here at the end of May, the camp inhabitants were collecting stuff to rebuild their tents. My challenge was not just to rebuild the camp but the community inside. And with patience and effort, the camp and its community were rebuilt. It was great success for all who took part.” As we walked about the camp, refugees asked him for help — for urgent permission to leave the camp, or an extra tent to relieve overcrowding. He promised to look into each case: “Some days I’m so exhausted that after work I go to my room and cry.”

Refugees in their own land

Near the unfinished sports stadium in Benghazi there are shipping containers that used to be workers’ houses, now home to refugees and others internally displaced. It is known as the “campo”. “This is now a five-star refugee camp,” said Ahmad Makhlouf, who works for the Libyan Red Crescent and is proud of the achievement of the volunteers: they tried their best to provide refuge for stranded foreign workers at the height of the conflict. Most have now returned to their home countries, but part of the camp has become a temporary home to Libyans from the town of Tawarga.

Sheikh Mahmoud, a religious leader, is an elder of the Tawarga tribe which gave its name to the town. He said: “During Ramadan [August 2011] our town came under indiscriminate shelling, and we left to save our families. Of the original 40,000 people no one is left now, we’re dispersed all across Libya.” Tawarga is one of the few towns that was emptied after the fighting. The Tawarga are a tribe of African origin and were favoured under Gaddafi.

Mohammad Shibani, a computer engineer now living in the “campo”, said: “On the third day of the revolution 7,000 pro-Gaddafi fighters entered Tawarga and then attacked Misrata. Some of the Tawarga youth joined the Gaddafi battalions in the attack. They committed crimes. But it doesn’t mean that all Tawarga should be deported. Let them punish those who are guilty. We hear them saying Tawargans should go back to Africa, as if Libya is not in Africa … We hear that fires are still burning in our houses.”

Later, I passed Tawarga and counted eight fires in apartment blocks or houses; the town had been occupied four months earlier by Misrata rebels, then abandoned and destroyed. The Misrata fighters were taking revenge on the town for siding with Gaddafi, and wanted to make sure the Tawarga would never again be their neighbours. Even the name Tawarga had been erased from the road signs.

The drive through the desert from Benghazi to Sirt reveals much of Libya’s past: it was divided between eastern Cyrenaica and western Tripolitania, separated by a vast desert. Eastern Libya was for decades a centre of opposition, and you can see why in Benghazi, which lacks basic infrastructure, its roads pitted with holes that fill with sewage on a rainy day. Villages around Benghazi look poor and in urgent need of repair.

Tripoli Street, the main avenue of Misrata, Libya’s third city and the major commercial harbour, is in ruins. After the town rose up, following the example of Benghazi, pro-Gaddafi forces (the notorious Khamis brigade, and tribal militias from Tawarga and Zlitan) entered the city. Mohammad Darrat, a factory owner, and Misrata’s spokesman since it rebelled against Gaddafi, said: “People are still in shock since the freeing of the town, they don’t know how to behave.” Were the rebel forces an obstacle to building a new Libyan army and stabilising the country? “No, revolutionary fighters are seen as a safety valve.”

His family paid a high price for Misrata’s freedom. His young sonjoined the local militia and tried to hit a tank with an RPG-7 rocket, but missed through lack of experience. The tank returned fire and hit him. His leg was amputated and he is now being treated in a German hospital. Darrat’s brother left Germany where he worked as a doctor and returned to help the rebellion as a medic. He crossed the front line by mistake, was captured by Tawarga fighters and then sent to Tripoli prison. He was made to appear on pro-Gaddafi television, but publicly defended the revolution. He was executed on the day the rebel forces liberated Tripoli.

Misrata paid for its rebellion, with 1,270 dead, 12,000 wounded and 500 still missing. Still more painful was the rape of many Misrata women by pro-Gaddafi fighters. It is hard to prosecute the rapists because of social taboos.  A foreign aid worker said: “They cannot even write down the names of those who were raped; how do you bring such cases to court?”

Viken Cheterian is a journalist.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.