x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Libya conflict spills into Tunisia

Tunisia is feeling the effects of the turmoil in Libya, as refugees and the wounded cross over to escape the violence and seek medical treatment.

DEHIBA, LIBYA-TUNISIA BORDER // After a morning of fighting to reclaim the Libyan side of this remote border post, rebel fighter Anwar Jerbi was watching carloads of refugees roll into Tunisia on Friday when his mobile phone rang.

"When will I see you?" said his wife, Fadia, calling from the Tunisian city of Tataouine.

"Maybe two or three days," Mr Jerbi said. "It depends on the situation."

Mr Jerbi, 34, has not seen his wife and two children since they entered Tunisia in April among thousands of Libyans fleeing an ongoing assault by government forces on the rebel-held Nafusah Mountains.

The abrupt exodus is an aspect of how war in western Libya is straining south-eastern Tunisia, a cash-strapped region that had been long neglected by the regime of ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

That strain is sharpest at the Tunisian border village of Dehiba, where Libyan rebels and government forces have chased one another into Tunisia during recent skirmishes and sent their wounded to Tunisian hospitals.

Violence in western Libya has driven at least 23,000 Libyans into Tunisia since April 6, according to a Tunisian authorities cited in a report last week by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"How can they stay in Libya?" said Mr Jerbi, watching the line of cars inch forward through the border crossing. "They saw what [Libyan leader] Qaddafi did at Sabratha and Zawia."

In February, Mr Jerbi listened to friends weeping over the phone from the coastal city of Zawia, then subject to a vicious assault by the forces of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Last month Mr Jerbi's cousin, Ali Jerbi, 22, was shot dead by government soldiers outside the two men's hometown of Nalut.

"I used to bring vegetables from Tunisia to my shop in Nalut," said Mr Jerbi. "Now I'm carrying a Kalashnikov, and my family are staying in Tataouine."

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UAE Red Crescent have set up tent camps near Dehiba, many Libyan refugees have been welcomed into Tunisian homes, said Fathi Abouzakhar, a Libyan professor from Sirte University, helping co-ordinate home-stays through Tataouine's state youth centre.

Among them are electrician Mohamed Battar, his wife, Sanaa, and their three young children, who fled Nalut in April as Qaddafi forces bombarded the outskirts of the city.

"Qaddafi is striking young, old, even animals," said Mr Battar. "We left in a hurry. You just throw a few belongings into a car and you go."

Following backroads to avoid pro-Qaddafi forces, Mr Battar headed to the house of his friend Hadi Eljani in Bir Thelathine, a village near Tataouine.

The two men met 15 years ago in Nalut, where Mr Eljani worked as a house painter and frequented a cafe owned by Mr Battar. They share a love of football and the Amazigh language.

Also known as Berbers, Amazighs descend from North Africa's pre-Arab inhabitants. Their language is spoken by some in south-eastern Tunisia and widely used in the Nafusah Mountains despite Col Qaddafi's attempts to suppress Amazigh culture.

"Since the war began in Libya I haven't been able to work, and I was hoping to get to France," said Mr Eljani. "But then the brothers from Libya arrived, and I'm here for them."

Mr Battar and other Libyans staying with Mr Eljani fear they will burden him as Libya's conflict drags on.

While Tunisia has enjoyed steady growth in recent years, rural regions were long starved of state investment by Mr Ben Ali's regime.

Since his ouster in January, political uncertainty has spooked tourists, while Libya's war has paralysed cross-border trade, said Houcine Jaber, vice-president of Tataouine's commerce and industry union. "The resources of most families here are limited. We need international aid."

Tataouine's regional hospital is struggling to cope with the new demands placed on them by Libyan refugees and war wounded, said Dr Moncef Derza, who runs the emergency room there.

"We were initially prepared for short-term catastrophes - a 20-car pile-up, for example," Dr Derza said. "When wounded started arriving, we didn't have the supplies and personnel we needed."

That burden has increased since April 21, when Libyan rebel fighters seized control of the Dehiba border post. Last Thursday, Libyan government forces recaptured it, with wounded from both sides ferried to Tunisian hospitals.

For many the first stop was Dehiba's small hospital, run since late April by Dr Sami Boubakri, an emergency care specialist on loan from a hospital in the coastal city of Sfax.

Last Thursday night, Dr Boubakri was darting through a crowd of Tunisian soldiers unloading wounded Libyans from army jeeps, to an ambulance where a Libyan government soldier lay unconscious with his left thigh torn open.

At Tataouine Regional Hospital, another Libyan government soldier, Kamal Marsoun, was lying in bed with his head bandaged.

"We were coming up the wadi today when rebels fired from above," said Mr Marsoun, 29. "I've been fighting in the mountains for two months. I want to see my mother."

A moment later, Dr Derza came down the corridor, rallying hospital staff. "Get ready, we have rebel wounded coming in a few minutes," he said.

Fighting picked up again on Friday morning at the border crossing when Mr Jerbi's group of about 50 rebel fighters attacked government forces.

"We came down slowly along the road, firing at them with our 14s," he said, motioning toward 14-millimetre anti-aircraft guns mounted on pick-up trucks nearby.

Government forces fled into Dehiba, firing wildly, and were stopped by Tunisian army roadblock, said Sultan Saleh, a medical worker with the International Medical Corps, a global medical non-profit assisting Dehiba's hospital.

At the border, Mr Jerbi found a government soldier's coat under a tree and retrieved an identity card from the pocket.

"His name is Badr Swaghi," Mr Jerbi said. The card showed a young face but gave no age. "I don't know what happened to him. Maybe he was killed, maybe he ran away, maybe he's among the wounded."

Mr Jerbi regarded Badr Swaghi's identity card, turning it over in his fingers.

"How can we live together after all this is over?" he said. "That's the problem: Qaddafi has made Libyans kill other Libyans."