BENGHAZI, 11 April 2011 (IRIN) - The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has been relatively calm, but this should not mask existing and potential humanitarian needs, aid workers warn.
"Although the emergency needs, in the traditional sense, were not that great when we arrived, operating here has been a completely different challenge," said Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mission in Benghazi.
"The conflict has not really been directed at the civilian population," he told IRIN. "This is nothing like working in Afghanistan or other conflict zones. But there are still very strong humanitarian needs. The country has gone from having a functioning society to one that is essentially split in two. Benghazi is in shock and there has been much to address."
Billboards that once showed images of Col Muammar Gaddafi have been ripped to pieces. At a set of traffic lights, a dummy dressed in the grey jumpsuit and yellow hardhat of the mercenaries and snipers who targeted the area in February hangs by the neck, and pro-opposition graffiti is on practically every corner.
Basics like food, water and clothing are available, although many shops and offices remain closed. Petrol prices have fallen, since the government is no longer taxing it. Cell phone coverage is patchy but all calls are free. Banks are open, but people are only allowed to withdraw LD750 (about US$900) every 10 days - over the counter because ATMs are not working.
"Libya also had a very centralized economy. So we have to address the long-term effect of limited access to bank accounts and therefore, potentially food. Any humanitarian organization must be concerned with contingency planning."
One major risk is the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO). "UXO and destroyed armoured vehicles are now very much part of the landscape," said Srdjan Jovanovic, an ICRC weapons' contamination specialist." The risk for the civilian population is clear, especially as there are many conflict zones in the country.
According to the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), [ http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/JARR-8FQJ3K?OpenDocument&rc... ] the UXO risk and the proliferation of weapons and ammunition looted from poorly secured stores, has become increasingly clear in eastern Libya. There are also credible reports of newly-laid minefields.
"I came into Benghazi from the east through Tobruk and on the way saw a lot of scattered UXO," noted MAG expert Andy Gleeson. "This is worrying as the situation is relatively calm in the east of Libya, so people are likely to begin walking and travelling around more freely, and that's when they get hurt or killed."
Since arriving in Benghazi, he added, he had not only seen lots of bombed-out vehicles including tanks and abandoned missile launchers, but also dozens of abandoned munitions, especially in outlying areas. "I heard of people collecting and keeping hold of munitions to fight with, as if preparing for a doomsday scenario," he added.
Children are also at risk in the current situation. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), some have been being targeted in Ajdabiya and Misrata. Others are being deprived of an education: Schools have been closed in eastern Libya since 17 February.
"The current fighting in Libya is putting children at high risk," said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Their right to education, play, health and even survival are under serious threat."
In the past 20 days, the agency noted, almost 20 children, some as young as nine months, have been killed in Misrata by shrapnel from mortars and tanks, and bullets. Most were under 10.
One grassroots response to the current situation has been the establishment of scores of self-help groups and charities.
"[Previously] it was not easy to establish a charity," Amina Bmegheirbi, one of the founders of the Tawassel Association for Young Women and Children of Free Libya, said. "The [Gaddafi government] taught us that we didn't have poor people in Libya, that we were all rich.
"Of course that was not the case. There have always been people screaming out for help in Libya, but the government was not listening."
Bmegheirbi was a professor of English at Gar Younis University in Benghazi until unrest closed the institution in February, giving her a chance to do what she always wanted to - start a charity.
Before February, only a handful of registered Libyan aid agencies existed in Benghazi. Now, according to Bmegheirbi, she recently counted 200 registered at the Town Hall.
Tawassel was initiated by 12 women in February to provide food, clothing and psychosocial support to refugees from Ajdabiya and Misrata. It offers training courses and development activities for children aged 4-13.
"It is psychologically important for children to share how they're feeling," Bmegheirbi told IRIN. "Painting, for example, is a very powerful tool for them to release trapped emotions. Often their parents are busy or stressed, or they don't know how to help their children deal with the horror they have witnessed. That is where we come in."
Sixteen year-old Salem Bader, a volunteer since his school closed in February, said: "I love working with kids. I could be sitting at home bored, watching TV, but I want to be a part of what is happening in my country."
Bmegheirbi said the growth in numbers of local Libyan charities had, for the first time, offered young people like Bader an opportunity to get involved in volunteer work.
"Before [February], after school young people were just hanging around on the street," she added. "They weren't even mixing or sharing ideas. Everything was segregated between the boys and girls. Now they are feeling that they are part of productive society."