Looking beyond the bare facts of humanitarian aid

Published: 14 June 2011 14:53 CET

By Catherine Lengyel in Tunisia

The call came at 10.30pm on 2 June. A boat carrying some 800 people fleeing Libya had broken apart just off the coast of Tunisia. 600 people were in urgent need of shelter and medical attention. The rest of those on board were thought to have drowned.

These were the bare facts. The reality, as always, was much more complicated.

The Al Hayet Transit Camp near the Ras Jdir border with Libya, which was established by the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), had just begun to gradually scale back its operations, as the numbers of third country nationals crossing into Tunisia continued to diminish. The joint TRC/IFRC team now found itself scrambling to meet this sudden and urgent need. Most of the 90 TRC volunteers had left the previous week, due to a deterioration in the security situation. They were the backbone of the camp operation, participating in essential services such as registration, relief distribution, health care, psychological support, and hygiene promotion, as well as with the general dissemination of information. Since then, the camp has been operating with a mere handful of IFRC delegates and a couple of TRC volunteers. Moreover, neither of the other two other camps in the area was in a position to respond.

In these situations, saying no is simply not an option.

The survivors of the shipwreck were taken in over the course of the following two days. By the end of 4 June, the camp’s population had jumped from 203 people to over a thousand, and from five to 22 nationalities. There were many more families than previously, and a number of unaccompanied minors, including a three-month-old baby.

These were the basic statistics. The reality, as always, was much harsher.

Abdallah Abdayya, IFRC’s Health Delegate, said that for most, the situation was desperate. “The survivors were left with only the clothes on their back, many with not even that. They had lost all of their belongings, their identification, their money. They had lived through horrors. They were in a state of shock.” The team rallied to provide some measure of comfort. Clothes were found, first aid provided, additional tents erected, and the family area of the camp expanded. Abdallah even found time to dash to the market to purchase cheerful sets of slippers for everyone – a small gesture that proved to be a big hit.

These were the basics. The needs, however, were far greater.

Indeed, it soon became apparent that many of those who had survived were seriously traumatized. Partner agencies responded to the IFRC’s call for help, and psychologists from UNFPA and MSF came in immediately to assist, followed some days later by UNICEF. The IFRC also initiated tracing activities, facilitating contacts between the survivors at the camp and ICRC staff who were temporarily away from the field operations.

The story that slowly came to light is unimaginably grim: an overloaded boat, lost at sea, going around in circles; too many people crammed together for five long days and nights, with neither sufficient food nor water; tensions rising, animosities seething, misunderstandings smoldering, until the vessel finally ground to a halt on a sandbank and ultimately broke apart, just as a rescue operation was getting underway.

These are just the words. The reality, however, was a series of personal tragedies.

Nearly a quarter of those on board are thought to have perished at sea. The others were eventually rescued by Tunisian fishermen and the national coast guard. Husbands who had been unable to save their wives, women who had seen their husbands disappear, parents who had lost their children, and children who had lost their parents, together with some of the luckier ones, individuals and families who had survived – all have ended up in the TRC/IFRC Al Hayet Transit Camp.

Six days later, they wait patiently. For news of the handful in hospital, for confirmation of deaths, for closure, and for what the future may hold. For some, it is simply a matter of awaiting onward travel to their country of origin. For others, who have lived and worked in Libya for decades, run businesses, studied, grown up there, the situation is more complex.

And so they wait, at the TRC/IFRC transit camp, for the system to take them in hand, and come to their aid. And for their future to unfold.

These are the uncertainties they must now live with. The reality, sadly, never fits neatly into a box.