Robert Fisk: Panic on borders as chaos engulfs Libya

Tens of thousands flee mounting violence as UN warns of urgent humanitarian crisis

Share
Related Topics

The Libyans watched from an open window of the immigration post, leaning out to see the 20,000 fleeing Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Iranian workers heaped up against the border wall. They seemed quite unconcerned, shirt-sleeves rolled up, moving to a window closer to this crowd. Already up to 75,000 have struggled into Tunisia, but yesterday the crossing system collapsed as thousands of men, almost all Arabs desperate to escape Muammar Gaddafi's state, fought with local Tunisians who – under the eyes of the army – attacked them with stakes and iron bars.

Many of the soldiers hurled plastic water bottles and biscuits into the masses of refugees who began to jump the border wall in their desperation, heaving family members and baggage through breaks in the cement. Clichés run out when faced with such chaos and unnecessary suffering. "Insupportable" was the word that came to mind yesterday. Most of these 20,000 had gone without food, water or sleep for four days. How is it possible that people should suffer so greatly at a mere border post?

Officials turned up with anodyne words of fearful irrelevance. Josette Sheeran, who rejoices in the title of executive director of the World Food Programme, stared at this ocean of humanity and announced: "We are doing all we can – we are working through this situation. And it's never too late." But it was. Ms Sheeran arrived with 80 tonnes of food, most of it high-energy biscuits, which were thrown over the wall at the crowds once she had left.

More to the point, Firas Kayal, of the UNHCR, took one look at the young Tunisians beating the Egyptian refugees, said that a crisis had been reached at the border and that 14,000 refugees had crossed in the past 12 hours alone. "The Tunisians' capacity to help has reached its limit," he said. "We are bringing in two UN flights today filled with tents for these people inside Tunisia. We are helping the local authorities and the local people to cope."

What Mr Kayal did not say, of course, was that the men beating the refugees were the "local people".

All day it went on, as the men squeezed against the gate, animal roars breaking out among the thousands behind them. Unconscious men were carried over the frontier wall and laid side-by-side in the sand and on the tarmac by Tunisian doctors.

They were brought round with water and by nurses who massaged them. Many simply sat on the road, shaking their heads and weeping. By dusk, the Tunisian army had climbed the gate – literally advancing several yards into Libya – to drag barbed wire along the wall. The Tunisian authorities had by nightfall turned the nearest camp into a refugee city although they were not without some cynicism. "When Tunisians arrive in boats in southern Europe, you call it a crisis," a doctor told me sharply. "But when tens of thousands of Egyptians try to cross our border from Libya you give them biscuits and forget us."

Of all the gloomy stories yesterday, however, none was as grim as that of Adel Jumaa. He was a young Libyan who had just escaped across the southern Tunisian border and spoke of Libyan special forces checkpoints, of senior police officers shot by the regime, of the people of western Libya who wanted to get rid of Colonel Gaddafi but who were unarmed and too fearful to leave their homes. Libyans who had spoken to foreign television stations by telephone had been arrested and "disappeared".

He said: "There is a big bridge this side of Tripoli and Gaddafi has put dozens of missiles on the eastern end. The security people checked my car up to 15 times at road blocks. They were looking for telephone smart cards, PIN cards, anything to do with communications."

This surreal awfulness was all too well illustrated for me when, driving back from the border last night, I listened to Colonel Gaddafi's state radio broadcasting the 5pm news from Tripoli. Here, for students of the absurd, were the contents. President Barack Obama has announced that al-Qa'ida controls Benghazi. The "people of Libya" have denounced UN sanctions. A South African "King" has telephoned Colonel Gaddafi. Revolutionary Committees will protect the people from terrorists of a "well-known group". An independent Libyan committee has been set up to inquire into recent "disturbances" and to find out why foreign news organisations were lying about Libya. The Libyan people "are happy to defend their revolution and their historic leadership and the achievements of their beloved leader". In Benghazi, "the people who did 9/11 are slaughtering and raping". Oh yes, and an imam denounced all other imams who criticised the beloved leader and all foreign news organisations which denounced the same Great Leader. And then, on a telephone line, a "reporter in Benghazi" described al-Qa'ida's cruelty towards the people of Libya.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible