Nine-year-old boy, injured in Misrata fighting, reflects risks facing Libyan children

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By James Elder

James Elder, Communications Chief for UNICEF's Libya Emergency Response Team, is part of the agency’s first mission on the ground in Benghazi, eastern Libya.

BENGHAZI, Libya, 26 April 2011 – First there was an explosion, but what made Mr. Mohamed jump were the screams. Shrieks and cries have become frighteningly familiar for residents of the western Libyan city of Misrata, but this was a singular scream. This was the voice of Mr. Mohamed’s son, Mufteh.

He ran to the roof where Mufteh, 9, had been playing. The boy was holding his face in his hands.

“There was so much blood on my son,” says Mr. Mohamed. “The first thing I did was to get him off the roof, and then I just held him in my arms.”

‘I had to get him help’

The hours leading up to the explosion had been quiet, but shrapnel from what Mr. Mohamed thinks was a mortar had exploded nearby and torn into his son’s body, especially his face.

The family lives near a clinic in Misrata, but the shelling in the area was now steady. Still, recalls Mr. Mohamed, “I had no choice. I had to get him help. I carried him to the hospital.”

Mufteh has since been evacuated by boat to the opposition-held eastern city of Benghazi, a 20-hour journey. He had internal bleeding, a broken jaw and shrapnel wounds around his face and neck.

“My son was just playing. How can this happen to a boy when he is playing fun games?” Deplorably, it is occurring repeatedly in Misrata and other areas in Libya. Over the past few days in Misrata alone, medical workers have reported at least 40 civilians killed, including a Ukrainian doctor and two photographers, along with hundreds injured.

Children at risk

Meanwhile, ever-intensifying hostilities in Libya’s western mountains have displaced thousands more people in recent days. Heavy fighting has raged around the towns of Zintan, Nalut and Qalaa, increasing the risk and trauma and injury for children.

Half a million Libyans have fled their homes since the conflict between government and opposition forces began in February. Some have left with what they can pack into a car, others with what they can carry in a sprint. UNICEF is providing the displaced with emergency surgical supplies, as well as obstetric, midwifery, hygiene and first-aid kits – plus drinking water, water-purification tablets, and toys and recreational equipment for children.

Additional supplies have been provided on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders with Libya to meet the needs of people who are fleeing the country. While many of those affected are migrant workers and their families, more and more Libyans are also crossing the borders seeking safety.

Psychological support

Back in Benghazi, Mufteh is preparing for the first of the operations he will need. Well-wishers have brought him some gifts, though his injuries don’t allow him to smile. Soon he will join many other children for whom UNICEF has also been providing psychological support in eastern Libya.

“He was so brave, but in so much pain,” says his father. “I think he may have some problems later, but he is alive. We were lucky.”

It just doesn’t look that way.