x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Expats flee deadly Libyan violence

Thousands of expatriates flee Libya into Tunisia on Friday as violence continues to tear the nation apart.

RAS AJDIR, Tunisia // One Egyptian said he was forced to kneel in front of members of the Libyan army who carried out a mock execution. Another man locked himself in his home for five days, running low on supplies and hearing shots and screams outside. A group of Indian workers hid in the desert while awaiting a rescue plane.

Thousands of expatriate Egyptians, Indians, Turks and Tunisians crossed the border into Tunisia on Friday, and many of them appeared to be in shock. They carried their belongings and horrific memories of the violence tearing apart Muammar Gaddafi's Libya.

Tunisian aid groups offered them embraces, food and shelter.

Many Egyptians who had crossed Thursday night said they lived in the embattled towns of Zawiya and Zwara, which encountered some of the worst fighting in recent days.

Volunteer doctors and nurses tended to the new arrivals in medical tents, and volunteers from the Tunisian Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and the Tunisian Trade Union handed out soup and sandwiches.

At sunset, hundreds more crossed the border - many of them families. They collected a free blanket, some cartons of milk and sandwiches as they waited for buses to take them to the airport or to shelters. Red Crescent worker Khaled Faqeeh said 7,050 people - 4,200 of them Egyptian - arrived from Libya from morning until about 6pm.

Doctors said they hadn't seen any serious wounds but added that most were suffering from shock and trauma.

A few kilometers from the border, Egyptian men lined up to wash their faces from water gushing from a pipe at a camp set up by the Tunisian army. The camp, which housed about 5,000 people, was built after shelters at the border couldn't handle the large numbers coming across.

Many of the evacuees looked confused and frightened, sitting in the sand near their tents or lounging on suitcases. They wrapped their blankets around themselves for protection against a cold wind.

Some of those fleeing Libya were afraid to talk, fearful for their jobs or for fellow expatriates still inside. Others, however, weren't so reticent.

Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian construction worker from Cairo, said he locked himself in his home for five days in Zawiya, running out of supplies while listening to gunfire and screams from outside.

"Our government didn't bother to ask after us and did nothing to help us get out," Mr Mohammed said.

He and some other workers had to pay 200 Libyan dinars (about $160) - 10 times the usual cost - to rent a car to take them from Zawiya to the border. The driver dropped them off nearly three kilometers from the frontier, forcing them to walk with their belongings the rest of the way to the border.

Once there, the Egyptians said they were harassed by Libyan authorities.

"They kept telling us we needed papers that have never been required before to leave the country," said Syed Mohammed, who worked at the port in Zwara. "We eventually had to fork over a bribe to keep us moving."

All the Egyptians said the Libyan army and police they encountered on the way confiscated and destroyed the memory cards from their mobile phones to get rid of any stored photos or video.

Another man, Ahmed Ibrahim, said he had moved to Zawiya to work as a barber four months ago before being forced to leave because of the violence.

He said a group of Egyptians he fled with Thursday were sheltered by Libyan families, their journey protected by community watch groups from the opposition that had taken over control of the streets there.

"They would transfer us from one checkpoint to another to ensure our safety," he said.

Others had more terrifying experiences.

Taher Nasri, 25, who worked as a sailor in Zwara, said his car was pulled over at a gas station by the Libyan army.

"They pulled us out of the car, dropped us to our knees and then shot rounds next to us on the ground to scare us," Mr Nasri said.

Among the hundreds of Egyptians, a handful of Indians who worked as caterers at a BP oilfield in the Sahara desert pulled their luggage behind them as they crossed the border into Tunisia.

Shocked and exhausted, the Indians said they were forced to hide in the desert for three days before their company could secure a plane to rescue them.

"Everything was going smoothly one day and then, we don't know exactly who the attackers were, but we were told one day to just run," said Anthony Caruz, 57, who headed the catering staff in the desert compound.

He said that after hiding in the desert, they were told it was safe to go back to their compound, where they found their apartments ransacked and destroyed. Mr Caruz said they had to walk to a nearby landing strip where their company had chartered a flight from Malta to bring them to Tripoli.

"It was traumatizing. ... We couldn't sleep, we were panicking and running wherever we could just in the desert, just running as far as possible. We simply escaped from the jaws of death," Mr Caruz said, choking back tears.

Mohammed Abdelaziz, 22, said he and his wife packed up their belongings and left Zwara for the border on Thursday but were turned back by Libyan authorities. When they returned home, they found their apartment ransacked, he added.

"We didn't find anything left - my fridge, my bedroom set, my clothes - they were all stolen," added his wife, Sana Mohammad.

When they left again Friday for the border - this time paying 300 Libyan dinars ($240) per person to get a ride to the border - the Zwara police headquarters and other police stations, as well as the courthouse, were ablaze, and "the Libyans were all shooting in the air," her husband said.

"Everyone is carrying a weapon. I even saw a small boy carrying a gun," he said.

While the aid efforts were largely based on volunteers from Tunisian civil society groups and donations, the Tunisian army was in charge of keeping order and organizing the traffic.

"I wanted to go into Libya and help in there because I know the poor state of the medical health inside," said one of the volunteers, Hussein Saleh, 32, showing his green Tunisian passport. He said he worked in Libya for four years as an X-ray technician.

Mr Saleh said officials were getting so much donated food and medical supplies "we're running out of room to store it."

A group of teachers from the Tunisian province of Sidi Bouzid brought an ambulance and two carloads of donated food and medicine. The province is the site where an unemployed man set himself afire December 17 in the uprising that eventually toppled longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and then spread across the Arab world.

*Associated Press