Syrian refugees seek shelter in Libya – By Ruth Sherlock in Benghazi
Thousands of refugees fleeing the escalating violence in Syria are seeking shelter in Libya, a country still recovering from its own civil war.
Buses from Damascus, crammed with Syrian families, are arriving daily into the east Libyan city of Benghazi.
« Up to 4,000 Syrian families have sought refuge in Libya in the last weeks, and the numbers are increasing every day » said Dr Mohammed Jammal, a Syrian community leader in the city. « The buses arrive full and go back empty. There used to be two a week, but now there are two a day. »
The journey is a gruelling four and half days of travel, crossing first into Jordan, across the Suez Canal, through Egypt, and then down the long road to Benghazi.
But refugees say this was preferable to staying in neighbouring countries where they still felt unsafe. Many of the escaping families are opponents to the reign of President Bashar al-Assad, and fear persecution in Lebanon, whose government remains an ally of the Syrian regime, or even Turkey and Jordan by infiltrating Syrian intelligence officials.
« Libya is free now. There is no secret police to watch you move, » said a refugee who nonetheless remained too fearful to give his real name.
Most of the families are escaping the increasing violence and bloodshed in the Syrian city of Homs and other increasingly restive parts of the country. Ahmed, who spoke to The Daily Telegraph using a pseudonym, arrived in Benghazi four days before from Homs. Exhausted, and still terrified, he described his family’s harrowing ordeal.
He and his wife, four daughters and two-year-old son had lived on a street that was the dividing line between neighbourhoods of the Sunni and Alawite ethnic sects. For three months they had watched the tensions between the groups grow and violence begin to unfold around them. In the last month, as sectarian attacks increased, it had become too dangerous to leave the home.
« The situation is very bad in Homs between Sunni and Alawite groups. They are all fighting now. Shia gangs break into cars or set them on fire to the vehicles and blame it on the Alawite. The security forces encourage this, » said Ahmed. « It is war. There were six tanks on my street. Sometimes we could not go outside for days because of the fighting. I would wait until there was a lull to go out for supplies, or until the fighting in the next neighbourhood was so bad that it diverted attention. »
When Ahmed’s uncle was killed by a mortar as he was out buying bread, the family decided to leave. « We waited more than a month to get the passports and had to pay bribes at the immigration office, » he said. « Nearly everyone I spoke to in Homs is talking about getting out. We left our home, our car, everything. »
Prior to the Libyan civil war thousands of Syrians had worked in the country. The Libyan Red Crescent estimates that 12,000 Syrians were in the country at the start of the Libyan uprising. « Many left but now they are returning, and bringing their families with them, » said Ziad al Dresi, a refugee coordinator for the Libyan Red Crescent.
Many refugees said they had come to stay with relatives or acquaintances. « I worked in Libya twenty years ago, » said a man unpacking the few possessions from the bus. « Many of the people I knew from then have died of old age or were killed in the Libyan war, but I still have some friends ».
Syrian community organiser Jammal said he had used money donated by Libyan sympathisers and Syrians living in Libya to rent flats to house many of the families. But as the numbers increase this was becoming increasingly difficult. « In the last ten days we have had problems finding housing, » said Jammal.
The nascent Libyan government, who last month was the first to recognise the umbrella opposition to Assad’s regime the Syrian National Council, has said it will host Syrian refugees. Working with UNHCR, the United Nations body for refugees, Libyan Red Crescent workers made ready temporary homes in its Benghazi refugee camp, which already hosts 120,000 refugees from the Libyan war.
« We have 26 Syrian families that are being sent here, » said camp manager Ibrahim al Asfour. « And we expect many more ».