International Rescue Committee (IRC)

IRC in Libya to help those who've fled fighting

I’m seated on a garage floor in a village about 75 miles from Libya’s capital of Tripoli. “We are suffering,” says my host, but pushes me to accept a chunk of bread liberally smeared with canned tuna. Rajab is an English teacher from Tuarga, a poor city almost two hundred miles away. He and as many as 30,000 others fled their homes there a month ago, when Libyan rebels attacked the community, seeing it as a base for attacks on the neighboring city of Misratah and a center of support for the former regime. In recent weeks homes in Tuarga have been burned while others have been seized. The message is simple: former residents are not welcome to return. In the eyes of their former neighbors, their perceived role as supporters of the former regime will not be forgiven.

While Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) has urged reconciliation amongst all Libyans as the country emerges from four decades of dictatorship, the wounds of the past six months of fighting are still fresh. As IRC regional director Mike Young told me at the end of a recent visit to Libya, there may be many reasons for optimism in post-Gaddafi Libya, but there is also reason for concern. “There is tremendous potential here to forge a new, better country; the transitional authorities have so far done a good job of managing expectations and moving in the right directions. However, it is very fragile: gains could be lost through factional fighting or a breakdown in the rule of law.”

Today, many families like Rajab’s have moved into areas far from home, but where they feel safe, and are provided support and protection. Many displaced families are living in temporary housing provided by friends or in former dormitories for foreign laborers. I visited one home packed with close to 40 people, living in three rooms. While they had electricity supplied via a web of wires, there was no plumbing or working toilet; they cooked over wood.  A cistern out back supplied their water. 

While it may seem incongruous that there are such dire needs in Africa’s richest  country, the seven month conflict has upset norms here.  Many former residents of Tuarga say they didn’t have time to gather their documents — so don’t have the identification required to receive aid, or to enroll their children in school. Others told me they were unable to withdraw savings from banks, because militias outside demanded identification, and were singling them out.

Those from Tuarga are among tens of thousands of displaced Libyans in need of emergency assistance as the country transitions into post-Gaddafi recovery. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says there could be as many as 150,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) throughout the country. This month the IRC distributed emergency hygiene kits to 850 families who have been displaced from their homes in former conflict areas such as Tuarga, Sirte and Bani Walid. The kits consist of a plastic bucket packed with a towel, toothbrushes and paste, diapers, soap, and other items targeting families with young children.  IRC field director Daire O’Reilly points out, “We’re focusing on households with women and small children, because that’s both the population that are currently in the most need but also where the IRC has been able to specifically address gaps through working with local and international partners.”

Those gaps leave families like Rajab’s at risk. At least twice before we left Rajab’s temporary home, he reminded us not to forget him. Like so many in Libya, his family has immediate needs, but requires a long-term solution.

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