UNICEF on the ground in Benghazi, as Libyan children face increasing threat

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

By James Elder

BENGHAZI, Libya, 19 April 2011 – Before intense fighting engulfed the western Libyan city of Misrata some 50 days ago, Dava (not her real name), 5, would play dress-up and make beaded necklaces. In this, she was probably typical of most five year olds living in Misrata.

But who would know? For the first two months of the conflict between the government and rebel forces, Libya appeared to be peculiarly devoid of children.

We have seen and heard many inexplicable things about Libya recently, but the strangest was the initial, almost complete absence of children from images and reports out of the country. We didn’t see children, we didn’t hear from them and – much as we probed and queried – we simply didn’t know what was really happening to them.

Hideous incidents

We do now, and it’s worse than we feared. Dava was killed by shelling on her way to a playground. Her parents are still trapped in Misrata. Reports of hideous incidents continue to come in from the city, where children are being killing and injured. We now know a little of their lives, because we have learned how they died.

The youngest child to bear the brunt of the fighting in Misrata was reportedly nine months old, and most of those who died over the last two weeks were under the age of 10.

Many other children are traumatized by what they are going through. Many have limited access to essential daily needs, including water and food, and none are in school. Other children, like those the city of Zintan, south-west of Tripoli, are completely cut off. Trapped amid the shooting and shelling, they may be experiencing a tragedy similar to the events in Misrata.

Trapped indoors

Yesterday in Tripoli, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos reiterated calls for a cessation of hostilities. UNICEF has echoed this appeal and called for an end to the siege of Misrata.

At the same time, UNICEF has provided some respite for affected families by delivering emergency health and surgical supplies, as well as safe drinking water. It has also provided play kits for children, enabling them to stay in relative safety indoors.

This last point is critical because of consistent reports of sniper fire hitting children in Misrata. The play kits aim to provide some distraction from the conflict for those who are confined to their homes.

‘When can I go home?’

Some Libyan children in other conflict-ridden cities have been able to flee. As a result, an increasing number of them are receiving UNICEF assistance in the form of health and hygiene kits, and psychological support.

Trauma is a reality for those like Mariam, 7, who saw mortars destroy nearby homes and was only able to grab her diary as her family fled in their car. “There was so much noise, so many explosions,” she tells me in the safety of a UNICEF-supported refuge. “I was crying, my parents were crying. When can I go home? What has happened to my home?”

Her voice trails off. I fear we both know the answer, so we say nothing.