TOBRUK, Libya, April 28 (UNHCR) – The first time I met Akram* in Tobruk he was clearly longing to talk to someone about the ordeal he and his family had just been through. The 40-year-old academic, his wife and three young children had just escaped by sea from the western Libyan port city of Misrata, which has been under fierce government siege for weeks.
Words cascaded out of his mouth during our meeting last week as he recalled the appalling death and destruction they had witnessed in Libya's third largest city and an important business centre. Today it is a battleground, with nobody safe under the relentless bombardment.
"I don't know how we are still alive," he told me, his voice cracking up. "A rocket went through our sitting room two weeks ago – everything was destroyed, pulverized. Our furniture, the windows, the walls, everything is gone." Normally the family would have been in the room at that time, but by chance they were watching television in another room and all escaped unharmed.
There were more heart-stopping moments to come in their quest to survive and escape the inferno that was Misrata, where many civilians are feared to have died since the conflict in Libya began in mid-February.
"Misrata is a battlefield, where rockets, missiles, tanks, everything, are being used against the inhabitants. There is no safe place there. We could not stay, we were too worried for the children," said Akram.
Clearly it was no place for civilians, especially with stocks of food, medicine and fresh water dwindling and difficult to bring in. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called earlier this month for access to Misrata, saying "this is a situation where life-saving humanitarian access should be guaranteed."
But getting around town for non-combattants is dangerous enough, let alone trying to escape from a place where only the sea offers a realistic way out.
One day, Akram said, he watched in horror from his apartment as one family paid the ultimate price in their bid to get out. The couple frantically pushed their three children into a car, probably hoping to drive to the port to catch a boat. Suddenly there was a huge explosion as the vehicle was hit by a rocket.
"There were body parts all over the street. It was awful. I continue to have nightmares about the children," Akram said, as the disturbing memory flooded back. Worse was to come. His best friend was shot dead in his car by a sniper hidden in one of the high-rises in Misrata. His body remained there for three weeks; it was too dangerous to risk recovering.
Akram and his family finally risked the trip to the port, where they waited for a boat with hundreds of other people, including foreign migrant workers and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. They reached Tobruk in eastern Libya last week and are living in a private building with 15 other families from Misrata.
Most of the thousands of families and individuals able to get out of Misrata this month, on boats chartered by humanitarian groups such as the International Organization for Migration, have similar tales.
Their children seem to have suffered the most on a psychological level. Many have become hyperactive or more aggressive, constantly play war games. Others have started wetting themselves at night, a sign of extreme fear and stress, and are highly sensitive to sudden noise.
"Our two-year-old, Huda,* has become another person," Akram's wife, Mona,* told me as the dark-haired little girl sat by her mother's feet. "She now demands much more attention and uses rude words. She also constantly tries to bite people."
I looked at Huda again and she did seem to be agitated and acting a bit hyper. "My two boys, aged seven and nine, are also affected," Mona continued. "They are now wetting their beds at night. They were traumatized by the noise of the constant explosions."
Akram, grateful for an audience, had a lot more to talk about, including the young men he saw being dragged off during peaceful demonstrations; the sleepless nights because of the constant shelling; the friends who left their homes to buy food and never came back.
But he saved his parting words for the people of Tobruk, which is controlled by anti-government forces and currently shelters some 12,000 displaced Libyans. Civilians have provided free lodging to those arriving from Misrata, while local committees, charities and individuals have donated clothes, food and medicine. UNHCR has also provided relief items.
"I am amazed at the solidarity and generosity of the people of Tobruk and it gives us strength for the future. We feel at peace here after all we went through; we can finally let go some of our fear," Akram said.
- Names changed for protection reasons
By Hélène Caux in Tobruk, Libya