Alarming humanitarian situation at Tunisia’s border with Libya

Published: 28 February 2011 11:01 CET
  • Egyptian Hammad Mansour and two of his children at the Ras Jdir border point following their entry into Tunisia from Libya.
  • Saiid Boubakar Diallo, from Mali, who is waiting in a military camp for onward transport to Mali

By Joe Lowry, Ras Jdir, Tunisia

As the sun set pandemonium broke out. Stuck for hours at the Libya/Tunisia border, the crowd started to surge. Thousands had already passed through but thousands more remained in the no-man’s land between the border posts.

There was an urgent need to clear the reception area of people, without use of force. Into the breach stepped a dozen Tunisian Red Crescent volunteers, supported by International Federation staff from the Tunis office.

Joining hands, they walked purposefully forward, asking the waiting new arrivals to move on so a way could be cleared. Time and time again they tried, but as people started to swarm through the border they realised the task was hopeless. Behind them women passed their babies over the crowd whilst local people threw bread and plastic bottles of water into the melee.

 Then injured people, hurt in the crush, were pushed to the front of the crowd. Again the Red Cross and Red Crescent staff responded, rushing to the border gates with stretchers. And deep into the night they carried on their humanitarian work – finding places for mothers to nurse their babies, helping the elderly with bags, serving water and sandwiches, directing new arrivals to onward transportation – but the odds were stacked against them.

 The night was bitterly cold, with a biting wind and drizzling rain, making life miserable for those stuck in no-man’s land, or waiting inside Tunisia for onward transportation.

 More than 10,000 people passed through Ras Jdir on Saturday, bringing the total number to around 40,000. Local police estimated thousands more were stuck at the border.

 Fleeing the unrest was Hammad Mansour, an Egyptian who has worked in Libya for 11 years. He, his wife and children left the city of Zoara and arrived on the border 2.5 hours later. They were among the luckier ones who arrived before sunset. He reported that his family had been able to cross easily.

 Not so 18-year-old Mohamed Ahmed Khalef who spent three days in Tripoli airport before deciding to take a car to the border. He reported that he had become separated from his friends at a checkpoint, had surrendered his mobile phone and had money stolen.

 Meanwhile at a camp run by the Tunisian military, where the TRC is helping to restore family links alongside ICRC and Telecommunication Sans Frontières, we met a group of electricians from Mali.

 Saiid Boubakar Diallo reported that he and his colleagues left their base 90 minutes’ drive from the border at 11pm, so their faces would not be seen and they would not be mistaken for mercenaries.

 Tunisian Red Crescent medical staff are assisting at a primary health clinic set up close to the border. From there, Dr Eloued Hosni noted that they had not seen any serious injuries, although some crush injured were treated by his team during Saturday night.

 At time of writing, Sunday 3pm, the situation remains tense on the border, with would-be arrivals once again rushing into the no-man’s land between the countries. 

 In all it is estimated that some 40,000 people have crossed since 21 February. Several thousand remain in the area. UNHCR is currently working on setting up a camp for up to 10,000 people.

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