Refugee Aid in Tunisia Is Supplying Libyan Rebels

Camps meant to aid refugees fleeing from Libya are also used as a rear echelon and supply chain for those fighting against Qaddafi


Libyan refugees cross the border into Tunisia / Reuters

NALUT, Libya and TATAOINE, Tunisia -- The rebels don't like it when you call them rebels. That's Qaddafi's term, they say, and prefer Reagan's: freedom fighters. This matters only for public relations purposes, because among themselves, members of anti-Qaddafi militias don't speak English, but rather Arabic and Amazir -- the Berber language -- and call themselves thwar, which roughly means revolutionaries. Fair enough, it's their war.

In April, the thwar based in Libya's desert interior attacked a border crossing 300 kilometers southwest of Tripoli; found it inexplicably lightly-defended; and seized it, opening an escape route to neighboring Tunisia. Over the next month, more than 60,000people drained from Libya into Tunisia, according to Kamel Derich of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who runs that agency's efforts near the crossing. Three refugee camps, one run by Derich's UNHCR team, one by the government of the United Arab Emirates, and one by the kingdom of Qatar, housed fewer than 10,000 Libyans, he estimated. The majority found private shelter with families in Tataoine, a rural town on the edge of the Tunisian Sahara.

"It is a Muslim obligation," said Ehmansouva Naouifel, a clerk in Tataoine's city Commerce Department, while shopping in a grocery store downtown. "We wish to help, but also, you must help." Since March, Tataoine families have been hosting the 60,000 of more than 400,000 Libyans who came to Tunisia since February, often in spare rooms vacated by family working abroad in Europe.

At first, the influx of Libyans served to soften a sharp drop in tourism in Tunisia, which lost business after its own revolution in January. In Tataoine, a military town that normally subsists on serving an army garrison, driving taxis for a trickle of desert tourists, or growing dates, the refugees were welcomed both as victims and as customers.

"In the beginning they were thinking one week, two weeks, maybe if it is a very long time, a month," said Hamad Awam, who was in the same pleasant Tataoine hotel as the United Nations' team, and had come from his home of Benghazi on behalf of a Libyan charity. "Now it is four months, and things begin to change. I think after the revolution is over we should erase the border."

The most visible change is that, four months on, the escape route the thwar opened for the refugees has reversed, and now the refugees are aiding the soldiers. Weapons do not appear to cross the border in large numbers; the Tunisian garrison in Tataoine tolerate the Libyan irregulars, but you won't see obvious gun-running. The shortage of weapons on the other side of the border adds to the sensation that Tataoine is not Casablanca.

But, insofar as an army travels on its stomach, the Tunisian town is the logistical hub for Libya's Western front. The city's few hotels are filled with young Libyan men in the red, black, and green caps of the Libyan opposition, and the Tunisian town's food distributors, supermarkets, and gasoline tankers provide the vast majority of the rebels' needs in the nearby Nafusa mountains.

"For myself, as a human, I hope the war ends soon," said a man who help runs one of the town's largest supermarket with his brother, and asked to be identified only as Sahaab, out of business concerns. "As a business, I must be honest, it is very good now." The company's off-site warehouse, where he spoke, contained hundreds of crates of food packs from UNHCR, for which he has contracted to distribute food to refugee families, he said. Much of that food, however,goes to feed hungry rebel fighters. "They open the box, and who knows, I just send the food where they tell me."

The majority of the material moving up the line into Libya is hitting his shelves first anyway, where it is sold as retail to dozens of ad-hoc missions, many led by Libyans based in Europe. At the border last week, a group of Libyan men living in Manchester, U.K., arrived with a van filled with food. Their journey had begun with taking up a collection in Manchester, driving 4000 kilometers under the English channel and across Europe, crossing the Mediterranean via ferry, and supplementing the last supplies with purchases in Tataoine.

"You have four kinds of customers now," said Sahaab, whose family's market is a modern, two-story building with groceries downstairs and household goods, diapers, and cookware upstairs. "You have the pro-Qaddafi people, very few, who carry a few things to their side. You have the anti-Qaddafi, there are very, very many of these. They come with euro, dollar, pound. Seventy thousand, one hundred thousand dollars, they buy a lot of things to take to Libya. I say sure, we make the order. Three you have the refugees who are living in Tataoine for now. And then you have the Tataoine people, the normal people."

Services for soldiers in Tataoine amount to medical care, and more often, rest.

"I come three days to see my family, then back to go with the army," said Malek Emhamed, an 18-year-old from Zintan, in Libya's Nafusa mountains, at the border crossing back to Libya. He was returning from a three-day liberty with a cousin, Aref Muhammed, and a half-dozen more young men waiting for a Tunisian immigration officer to process their exit stamps. Beside them was a line of pickup tricks filled with mattresses for barracks up the line, hay for goats the soldiers would eat, blankets, rice, and bottled water. A gasoline truck waited, preparing to make the 68-kilometer run up the ridgeline road to Nalut, the first town on the rebel line, within sight of Qaddafi's troops in a valley below.

At the end of that run, Nalut, which is still under shelling most nights, has two depots, one for food and one for gasoline. Anti-Qaddafi locals at Nalut gather the supplies sent from Tataoine, sending them on to 13 other towns under control of the anti-Gaddafi militias, according to Mohammed Omar, who runs the warehouse. "All this comes from Tunisia," he said as we stood in the hanger-like building beside the highway. "In Tataoine we have an office, and we ask to there, and it comes." Most of the tons of rice and pasta had no identification, but large sections came from charities, noticeably Islamic Relief. Much of the cooking oil, a quantity of pallets about five meters on a side, bore stamps from USAID and the World Food Program.

"Not our food," said UNHCR's Derich, in Tataoine, when I asked if UN food could be reaching Libyan rebels. "They're checking at the border." UNHCR's brief is to aid refugees, not run logistics for the rebels, and leakage from their supply line is a touchy subject. Derich has a $600,000 budget for refugee supplies in Tataoine and its environs, he said -- something that makes it easier for him to argue he is not involved in cross-border logistics. If Sahaab, of the supermarket, it telling the truth, he's moving more across the border daily privately than the UN would in a month, even if it spent every cent -- illegally -- on aiding soldiers. At the same time, Derich is optimistic about the inspections. In seven hours of interviews on both sides of the border last week, and again this week, I saw Tunisian soldiers search only a few cars coming from Libya to Tunisia, and none going from Tunisia to Libya. Flatbed trucks hauling tons of food were waved through with only the driver's passport formalities. On the Libyan side, none of the giddy, decidedly looser rebel guards -- they check you in on a computer, but don't stamp passports yet -- looked at anything at all. Five UNHCR staff on the border were there, but only to count people, and give the agency some idea of who is coming and going -- a picture that remains chaotic four months into the war.

A few tons of cooking oil doesn't mean the UN is the rebels' quartermaster. But, in practice, refugee assistance is mixing with military logistics to a visible degree in Tunisia. "What's the difference? There's no difference between civilian and soldier in Libya now," said Nader Ayousef, a former Fulbright scholar in Iowa who now acts as the rebels' spokesman on the border. "All the soldiers were civilians before the war. Teacher, maybe bus driver, now soldier. I don't think there is a difference. You help the soldier, you help the civilian. It is the same person."

The idea that a person is different if he is fighting in Libya or waiting in Tunisia struck Ayousef as nonsensical. "This is, I am sorry, very strange," he said.

Additional reporting by Karlos Zurutuza