Libya: Reflections from Benghazi
For those without a seat on, or too much luggage for, the UN flight from Cairo to Benghazi, the journey to Libya is a tiring, though smooth, two day car journey.
As you cross the border from Egypt to Libya at Salum you pass through a large hall, where hundreds of non-Libyan families sit all day on sheets and blankets, waiting for help from international agencies to leave the country.
Children play amongst the cars and in a makeshift tent and play area. The border crossing is a surprisingly relaxed and orderly place, though there is the heightened sense of security which comes when entering a country at war.
Once through you start the 6 hour journey to Benghazi, passing through scenery shifting from flat featureless desert to small villages and towns of sand-coloured buildings, coastal towns (lacking any of the prettiness and frivolity of seaside towns you’d find on the European side of the Mediterranean Sea) and into the trees and agricultural fields of the Green Mountains.
At one point you drive past the stunning Roman ruins of Cyrene – a site lacking in any UNESCO-style protective measures – where visitors can roam freely amongst the tumbled columns and walls, and stub out cigarettes as they walk across priceless ancient mosaics.
There are numerous checkpoints, at the very least as you enter and exit any town. These are manned by a few armed rebels, young and older men in camouflage, often sitting around a small fire on which a pot of coffee bubbles.
Their heads rise when they see a car containing two blonde-haired and light skinned women – some wave us straight through, though others stop to ask our local driver where we’re going and where we’re from.
I hear the word ‘englizi’, which often raises a cheery shout of ‘Manchester United!’ through our open window before they smilingly let us pass on.
We feel relatively safe and welcome, despite the presence of machine guns and mortars mounted on the roof or back of pickup trucks or atop sandbag bunkers.
Everywhere you see the rebel flag colours of red, black and green – painted on lampposts, tree trunks, building walls, along with the flag itself hanging from homes, businesses, on cars and power lines.
There’s also an abundance of graffiti images and slogans, some expressing their anger at the government, others their hopes for a new Libya.
We arrive in Benghazi at 5pm, as the rush hour traffic is getting snarled up by checkpoints and the drivers are finding alternative routes over the pavement, across wastelands and rubbish dumps.
This is a large city of sand and grey coloured buildings, cracked roads, bare wires and pipes, bustling with the everyday activities of work, business and shopping but punctuated by daily bursts of gunfire and small improvised bombs.
There’s a noticeable lack of children in the playgrounds or on the streets. Schools have been closed here, and across the country, since the uprising began, and children are often cooped up indoors all day, trying to understand what has happened to their lives and those of their friends and family.
We’re here to support and protect those children. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them in the daily activity centres Save the Children-trained volunteers are running in 10 schools in Benghazi.
These centres, with their art materials, toys and outdoor games, provide over 1,500 children with the much needed chance to socialize, express themselves and just be children, adding a little normality to their very disrupted lives.
They host both local children and those of displaced families who have fled the violence of Misrata, Ajdabia and other war-affected towns.
They talk of football, tennis, clothes, they play football, table-tennis and card games. But their emotions become apparent in their artwork. Rather than the normal pictures of friends, family, houses and flowers, their paintings are full of the flags of the rebels.
Some pictures haunt you with their images of houses wrecked by bombs, men shooting each other, fallen and bleeding bodies, families crying, soldiers hiding behind buildings.
Many of these children have endured horrific experiences and will need psychosocial support to help them cope. At the moment these activity centres are starting to help them forget – and gradually deal with – their fears and memories.
The Save the Children Child Protection and Child Resilience Advisors are looking at programmes which provide psychosocial support, teach life-skills and techniques to help them adapt to new surroundings, and which channel their energies into positive activities such as a children’s newspaper and child to child learning.
Our daily life in Benghazi is relatively easy, despite the heavy workload and increasingly hot days and nights. We are supported by an incredible group of local employees and volunteers – bright, engaged and flexible youngsters and adults who are eager to support our work and their local community.
Some translate for us, others provide logistical support. We’ve recruited and trained various community mobilisers and field coordinators, who visit local families, and the camps for those Libyans displaced by the war, gathering and spreading information.
Their efforts are all the more valuable when we are forced to stay in our office for security reasons, as we were following a car bomb attack a week ago. Yesterday one of these volunteers returned to the office after interviewing families at an camp for displaced Libyans.
He was clearly distressed by some of the stories he’d unearthed and needed to talk through the experience. We know that there will be tough days ahead for many of our staff as they reach out to people who will tell us about the traumatic experiences they have endured as a result of this conflict.