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Libya: Witnessing the end, preparing for the aftermath

“You’ve got a lucky face,” I was told, less than 24 hours after arriving in Benghazi. It’s possible, I guess, but I think it’s more likely that my arrival in Libya and the rebels’ lightning advance on Tripoli are entirely unrelated.

I came here on Sunday, flying in on the twice-weekly UN plane from Tunisia. I’m the programme manager for this region, responsible for supporting our country offices in all aspects of their work.

I was looking forward to seeing our programme, but I was mainly expecting to spend my time poring over budgets and staffing planners – fairly humdrum project management stuff. Witnessing the final moments of a revolution wasn’t in the plan.

Bullets in the sky

Things started getting exciting at about 10pm. It’s Ramadan at the moment so the nights are unusually lively, but they’re not usually this lively – there were flags flying from car windows, every horn was being honked, and, quite alarmingly, there was an astonishing amount of gunfire.

This, it turned out, was ‘happy shooting’ – that is, celebratory firing in the air. Not that it’s very happy for anyone misfortunate enough to be underneath the bullets when they fall back out of the sky.

So while the entire citizenry of Benghazi, or so it seemed, flocked to the main square to trumpet the impending fall of Gaddafi, the Save the Children team took shelter from raining bullets and retired to our guesthouse, where we watched events unfold from the comfort of a sofa.

Humanitarian need

Of course the revolution hasn’t ended yet, or at least not as I write this. The news yesterday and today has been quite grim – serious fighting in Tripoli, no humanitarian access and a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.

On our previous assessments in Libya – in Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains – we’ve encountered highly distressed children, including some who’d become involved in the fighting forces.

But we fear the situation in Tripoli will be much worse: the city has been bombarded for weeks and blockaded for even longer; many schools are damaged and others are occupied by soldiers or displaced families; and we know that supplies of essential supplies, including fuel and medical equipment, are running low.

Preparing to move in

So rather than chewing over existing project plans as I’d intended, we’ve been working furiously on our emergency response strategy for Tripoli.

We’re contending with insecurity, conflicting information and serious logistical challenges. We have a team on standby to fly across to the Tunisian border, where we hope the road to the capital will be passable, but if that fails we may need to wait for air access, or perhaps try to reach the city by boat.

These are exciting but precarious times in Libya. There is a lot of urgent work to be done right now to provide for those who have been worst affected by the fighting.

But when the fighting’s over, we know there’ll be even more to do as we help the children in this fascinating country claim their rights to safety, education and a future of their own making.

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