BENGHAZI, 20 April 2011 (IRIN) - The Libyan city of Ajdabiya, 120km south of Benghazi and one of the closest urban areas to the frontline where armed opposition fighters are battling government troops, has turned into a ghost town because most of the residents have fled, eyewitnesses said.
"I realized that Ajdabiya wasn't safe when missiles started to be fired from several different points," said 55-year-old Omar El Zourganei, a science teacher who was born in Ajdabiya.
He first left the city three weeks ago for the southern town of Jalu, which lies near `hamada' scrubland and low sand dunes. "Jalu seemed safe to me, so with my wife and children in the car, we drove there," he told IRIN. "We didn't know anyone so we knocked on the door of a local family and they agreed to house us."
Soon Jalu was overwhelmed with more than 1,000 people from Ajdabiya seeking safe places to sleep.
"Then shelling began in Jalu, so we returned to Ajdabiya," he said. "A week later, the bombing got heavy and we decided to leave for Benghazi. But it hasn't been easy. I have four sons fighting on the frontline and I worry about them."
According to Zourganei, some people are beginning to return to Ajdabiya. "But I want to be 100 percent sure that it is safe for my younger children and grandchildren," he said from the home of a relative in Benghazi. "The situation is volatile and things could change at any moment.
"My friends, colleagues and neighbours are now scattered all over free Libya. But in a way, we are closer now than we ever were before. The fight for freedom has united us."
Local charity groups that have sprung up in Benghazi and are staffed by volunteers eager to contribute to the needs of displaced people from Ajdabiya, as well as those from Misrata, are helping the displaced. Abd'airahman Qwadir, one of the founding members of the Benghazi charity Attar ("Giving"), which is affiliated with the Libyan Red Crescent, was previously a teacher.
"A few of us gathered on the road to Ajdabiya when the conflict began to worsen, offering food and water to displaced people arriving in Benghazi," he said.
"Eventually we decided it made sense to form an organization," he added. "We receive about US$1,000 in our collection box every day, which buys goods and medicines for people who left everything behind. We also offer advice, and we have a team of professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers - who can offer specialist help depending on the situation. The response has been amazing."
A day earlier, one man had come to offer his car for transporting supplies. "People are generally very thankful, although some say that they feel inside that they shouldn't have to accept charity," Qwadir said.
On the edge of Benghazi, a few kilometres from the road that leads west, some displaced families from Ajdabiya are being housed in a former construction camp.
The site is run by the 17 February Association, one of the first voluntary associations to launch in post-revolution Benghazi. A total of 55 families from Ajdabiya are staying at the site, sleeping on bunk beds and donated mattresses in mobile homes.
"We're supplying food, medication, blankets, beds and coordinating with other NGOs for surgical needs of the displaced people," said Nasser Bus Neneh, head of the association.
"We are also beginning to bring in psychiatrists and counsellors," Bus Neneh added. "In Libyan culture people are not accustomed to seeking this kind of help; some of the women have been sexually-assaulted but they are wary of discussing how they feel. So we've turned to international professionals."
Funding comes from the Benghazi-based Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC) and from links with other smaller associations around the world. Some medical supplies have been donated by a group of British doctors while other medical supplies come from volunteer groups in Cairo.
Bus Neneh said the camp was initially staffed by volunteers. "Managing the site became overwhelming so I decided to ask my wife and sisters to come along and help," he said. "They agreed, and then other volunteers began bringing their female relatives.
"The atmosphere changed overnight. In the beginning the families were so traumatized that they were wary of talking to the male volunteers. When the women arrived, morale soared and the families began to feel more comfortable," he added.
Some of those who arrived at the site were injured, and two patients have since undergone surgery at Benghazi's Al Hawiya hospital. One week after arriving at the site from Ajdabiya, 27-year-old Asma gave birth at Benghazi's Al Hawari hospital to her first child, Taheri.
"I thought I'd have to give birth at Ajdabiya hospital," Asma said. "It would have been difficult. The doctors there were overwhelmed with injured people. I was fortunate to have the baby in Benghazi."
Bol Kasim, an electrician from Ajdabiya, arrived at the site last week with his family.
"We left Ajdabiya when the shelling got really heavy," he said. "I never expected it to happen. At first we fled to the desert, where we slept outside and had to extract water from wells we found. The kids got mild colds but they coped well. We stayed there for a month.
"Then my cousin told me that there was a safe place to go in Benghazi," he explained. "When we arrived, we found so many of our family members. I was amazed. I was worried that some of them might have been injured or killed, but by sheer luck we'd all come to the same place."
Shelling has continued in Adjabiya, according to aid workers, and residents say they do not feel safe enough to return.
Libyan doctors based in Ajdabiya told IRIN that the main hospital is the only site of real activity in the city. Its medical supplies are well-stocked, although the only patients that arrive these days are rebel fighters injured at the frontline.