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Delegate diary in Tunisia: helping people fleeing conflict in Libya

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Michael Kemsley, British Red Cross logistics delegate, reports back from Tunisia, where he’s been involved in setting up a transit camp for people fleeing ongoing conflict in Libya:

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks setting up a transit camp a few kilometres from the Tunisian-Libyan border, which is basically in the middle of the desert that thousands of people have had to cross.

In the camp, everything had to be done from scratch. That means pitching the tents, laying the water pipes, building shower blocks, sorting out electricity, installing lights – an endless list of jobs!

Most of the people arriving at our camp are migrant workers and most stay for just a few days while waiting for transport back to their home countries.

Seeing the camp open on 6 April, with people registering made all the work that’s gone into it worthwhile. Children were running around exploring every nook and cranny and it’s great they’re now somewhere they can play safely after everything they must have been through over the last few weeks.

However, it wasn’t all laughter as I heard wailing coming from one of the chemical toilets we put in. Some poor little chap had managed to lock himself in one of these strange new toilets. Even in this mixture of nationalities, a crying child is a crying child and I knew he needed help. But trying to work out what language he spoke through a locked door was an interesting challenge. Eventually we managed to get the door open and the little boy ran out and disappeared into a cloud of dust between the tents.

Later I saw him again, he was over his toilet trauma and I got to meet his family – all 21 of them! Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents all here together and waiting for the International Organization of Migration to arrange for them to get home to Chad. Omar, 26, was actually born in Libya and was studying medicine there. Despite the situation, he hopes to return to Libya. When he does, he says the first thing he’ll do is go to the Libyan Red Crescent and sign up to be a volunteer for them.

Everyone coming over the border has a different story but some are making it out with nothing at all, in some cases with only the clothes on their backs. All their possessions and years of savings are gone. Their only hope now is to return home and start a new life from scratch.

As the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continues to help those arriving across the border in such traumatic circumstances, the Tunisian Red Crescent is really the backbone to this whole emergency relief operation. Their volunteers have been involved in everything and go about it all with smiles on their faces.

Since the operation began at the start of March, they’ve helped set up this camp as well as working in the UNHCR camp just down the road. They’ve also distributed basic items like blankets and toothbrushes to thousands of people, and are working alongside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Algerian and Qatari Red Crescents serving as many as 23,000 meals a day.

These staff and volunteers have said goodbye to their families to come and live in the middle of a dusty desert (very dusty when the wind starts blowing!) in the most basic conditions for, as they all keep saying to me, the sake of humanity. Some are only staying a few days before they have to go back to their jobs; others have vowed to see out the whole operation. They have been a true inspiration for me and I think I’ve made some friends for life.