Refugees Stream Into Tunisia To Flee Libya Fighting

Apr 28, 2011
Originally published on April 28, 2011 12:08 pm

There have been reports over the past 10 days in Libya of heavy fighting between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government rebels in a mountainous region southwest of Tripoli, prompting civilians to flee for Tunisia through a border post that was captured by the rebels last week.

Less than a week ago, the desert border post was controlled by Gadhafi's forces. But in a nighttime battle last Thursday, rebels took it.

"The battle lasted three hours and then Gadhafi's soldiers ran over the border into Tunisia," said 24-year-old rebel Haythem, who took part in the fighting. "It was a great win because we got cars and guns and we also gained valuable experience."

Haythem says the rebels are getting better organized, and are also heartened by recent NATO airstrikes.

When Gadhafi was in charge of the border post, Libyans weren't allowed to cross into Tunisia. But on this day, a line of dusty cars and pickup trucks loaded with families and whatever possessions they could pack in, stretched as far as the eye could see. Everyone said they were fleeing Gadhafi's onslaught. One 25-year-old man, who seemed shaken and didn't want to give his name, set out on foot with his father three days ago from the besieged town of Yafran.

"It's a war," he said. "It's a war there, and the army of Gadhafi target us by the rockets and bomb us by the tanks. And his forces entered the center of our city.

"It's a hell there where I live."

The rugged Nafusa Mountains, which stretch from the Tunisian border to just south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, look like a chain of giant mesas from the American far West. This region of western Libya is largely inhabited by Berbers, who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans. In the past, Gadhafi suppressed their language and culture, so there is no love for the Libyan dictator here.

The U.N. estimates that more than 30,000 Libyans fled into southern Tunisia this month to escape the shelling and fighting.

At a refugee camp that recently sprouted near the border, workers put up more tents. Camp supervisor Agron al-Mundi says he left his job as a car salesman to come here and help his fellow Libyans. He says the camp has 886 people, including 150 families.

"I expect more to come in," he says. "As it is a war, so everyone will be fleeing the country."

Mundi walks through the camp, past a crowd clamoring for food packages being handed out from the back of a pickup truck.

In a tent at the end of a row is Adi Massaouda and her three daughters, who have just arrived from the town of Nalut, about 40 miles from the Tunisian border.

"Gadhafi's mercenaries were coming into our houses and we were scared, so we ran away," she says.

Refugees crossing the border say Gadhafi's forces are terrorizing people any way they can. They are gunning down flocks of sheep just to wreck livelihoods, the refugees say. But they say Arabs and Berbers are now united in their opposition to Gadhafi.

Outside a Tunisian house on the border, several Libyan men sit on a rug, smoking and drinking tea. From their vantage point on a hill, they gaze out at the desert, the mountains and the country they fled. One peers through a pair of binoculars.

These men say they first thank God for their safety and then NATO. And now they pray that the harsh terrain in their homeland will help the rebels beat Gadhafi.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Let's get a glimpse now into the war in another part of Libya. Most of the fighting we've heard of is along the coast. But now we know of battles in a mountainous region inland. Civilians are fleeing that area through a rebel-held border crossing into Tunisia. Eleanor Beardsley is there.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Less than a week ago, this desert border post between Tunisia and Libya was controlled by Gadhafi's forces. But in a nighttime battle last Thursday, rebels took it. Twenty-four-year-old rebel Haythem took part in the fighting.

HAYTHEM: (Through translator) The battle lasted three hours and then Gadhafi's soldiers ran over the border into Tunisia. It was a great win because we got cars and guns and we also gained valuable experience.

BEARDSLEY: Everyone here says they are fleeing Gadhafi's onslaught. This 25-year-old man, who seems shaken and doesn't want to give his name, set out on foot with his father three days ago from the besieged town of Yiffran.

INSKEEP: It's a war. It's a war there, and the army of Gadhafi target us by the rockets, and bomb us by the tanks. And his forces entered the center of our city. It's a hell there, where I live.

BEARDSLEY: The United Nations estimates that more than 30,000 Libyans have fled into southern Tunisia this month to escape shelling and fighting in their homeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

BEARDSLEY: At a refugee camp that recently sprouted near the border, workers put up more tents. Camp supervisor Agron al Mundi says he left his job as a car salesman to come here and help his fellow Libyans.

AGRON AL MUNDI: The total population of people right now here is 886, with 150 families. I expect more to come in from anywhere, as it is a war, so everybody will be fleeing the country.

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Inside a tent at the end of a row is Adi Massaouda and her three daughters. They have just arrived here from the town of Nalout, about 40 miles from the Tunisian border.

ADI MASSAOUDA: (Through translator) Gadhafi's mercenaries were coming into our houses and we were scared, so we ran away.

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Men: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.