Ras El Jedire Refugee Camp
By Susan Marie and Hind Houas
Ben Gardane is a town in southeast Tunisia, close to the Libyan border, Ras El Jedire. In 2011, during The Libyan Uprising, two entities became government of Libya. Muammar Gaddafi controlling Tripoli and Western Libya and Mustafa Abdul Jalail in Benghazi, controlling Eastern Libya. Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa and 17th largest in the world. Libya is one of the world's 10 richest oil-producing countries.
In 1959, oil reserves and income from petroleum were discovered raising Libya, one of the world’s poorest nations, to an extremely wealthy state. Americans, Italians and British in Libya aided in wealth and tourism following WWII. Britain was a supplier of arms and The United States kept Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya. This discontent mounted with the rise of Nationalism in Africa and the Middle East.
In 1969, military officers led by a 27-year-old army officer Muammar Gaddafi, staged a coup d’état against then King Idris, beginning The Libyan Revolution. In 1973, Gaddafi delivered his famous "Five-Point Address." Gaddafi set up surveillance, had 10 to 20% of Libyans work in Revolutionary committees, executed dissidents publicly, rebroadcast on state television, and employed diplomats to assassinate dozens of refugees around the world. Amnesty International listed 25 assassinations between 1980 and 1987. Libyans died due to war while Gaddafi financed Libya's income from oil on arms and sponsoring paramilitaries and terrorist groups around the world. From 1969 to 2011, the Eastern parts of Libya became beyond impoverished under Gaddafi's theories.
In 2011, Libya began a full scale revolt spreading to Tripoli. Saif al-Islam, son of Gaddafi, on Libyan television feared that the country would break apart and be replaced by Islamic fundamentalist emirates. Economic wealth was at risk. Shortly after Saif's speech, Libyan Ambassador to India [on BBC Radio 5] resigned in protest of the massacre of Libyan protesters under orders of Gaddafi, who threatened to destroy the movement.
Al Jazeera, front runner in reporting The Libyan Revolution, conveyed that Gaddafi's government armed pro – Gaddafi militia to kill protesters and defectors against the regime in Tripoli. In March 2011, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, a no-fly zone, with use of "all means necessary" to protect civilians in Libya. The first began with French military jets into Libyan airspace followed by The United States and United Kingdom as Operations Odyssey Dawn and Ellamy.
Human rights were nonexistent under the authoritarian regime of Gaddafi. Abuses included poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest, and prisoners held incommunicado, political prisoners held for years without charge or trial, no right to fair public trial, no right to change government, no freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, or religion. All were restricted. Independent human rights organizations were prohibited. Libya was suspended from the Human Rights Council, March, 2011.
Hind Houas, of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia under the former regime of Ben Ali, a human rights advocate, freelance journalist and university student, visited the Ben Gardane Ras El Jedire Refugee Camp on her own. This is her firsthand account:
"The whole view was beyond overwhelming. For me, seeing a huge number of people, those tents everywhere were scary and relieving at the same time. The moment I entered the refugee camps located in the Southern Part of Tunisia in a place called “Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire”, I knew that so many people needed and still need help. In the very beginning, I did not know where to go, whom to ask and how to introduce myself. I saw different faces, different people from different places all united by the same thing. They were refugees in Tunisia. They all witnessed the hardships and austerities of the Libyan President Qaddafi.
The first people I met were members of the International Organization of Immigration “IOM.” I entered their tent and told them that I came to write an article about the situation in the Refugee Camps. They asked me to take a seat in a small white tent and in front there were a blue flag of the organization with three letters, IOM.
The two young volunteers, a man and woman, came to the refugee camps to work in groups of two from 8am to 6pm. Their job consisted in taking a last look at the refugees’ health condition before sending them to the next zone. They took their temperature and checked that the photo in their passports matched each person. After doing this, the man ushered them to the entry of the zone every refugee wishes to enter. This last zone consisted of a large area in which there were many people all holding their passports waiting for the buses to come and take them to the airport. Those who entered to this tent were sure they will be transported home to their families. They were happy and they smiled when I asked them if I can take some photos.
My second stop was at the TélécomsSans Frontières (TSF) corner.
The first thing I noticed were massive numbers of people waiting in a long row. I spoke to two men: Allan Sebastian and Florian Vichot. Volunteers for the Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), a French NGO founded in 1988. Sebastian and Vichot are there to help the refugees by giving them the chance to call their families to relay that they are safe in Tunisia. Sebastian said that each phone call lasts 3 minutes. The total numbers of refugees in this camp are only allowed to make 17 thousand phone calls globally. Sebastian and Florian stated that the simple act of allowing refugees to call their families and loved ones brings them hope. Exactly what they need in order to begin to escape the horrendous time spent, as well as the memories, of their journey within and out of Libya to Tunisia.
The volunteers stated that for the moment, the situation is more or less stable, yet they are worried about the future. The number of refugees coming from Libya has declined, not a good sign. This means the refugees may all arrive at once adding strain to recovering Tunisia, as well as a scarcity of volunteers at Ben Guirdan.
Before I left, there were an area in the camp I visited where refugees gather to hear their names called to get their passports to be taken back home. I spoke to Nixson, a 26 year old Nigerian, a former mechanical engineer in Libya. Nixson came to Tunisia one week ago. He fled Libya after witnessing horrific torture. He were unable to describe to me in detail. He stated that it hurt him to think about it. All any of the refugees wish is to go home. Nixson said he had gotten to call his Mother. All she had kept saying to him were “come back home son.”
While speaking to Nixson, people behind me were waiting to hear their names announced. They stood in interminable lines, passport in hand, heading to the next stage, medical check. Then onto the last waiting zone until buses arrive to take them to the airport. The approximate number of refugees were 6,000.
This initial short journey at Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire Refugee Camp will remain inside of me forever. The world needs to know that Tunisia and the Tunisian people are helping as much as they can. I have learned valuable lessons from my people: Humanity does not have a religion or color, help the ones who are in need as much as you can and wait for nothing in return.
It is a wish in my heart that all the refugees get back safe to home and family. The volunteers at Ras El Jedir Benguirdan receive a special thank you. They are helping the people. This is their choice just as it were my choice to visit one refugee camp quickly set in place due to the Libyan revolt.
I understand how the people at Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire felt, having just survived the 2011 revolution in Tunisia. As a result being free for the first time in 23 years, it is my duty as a human being to give to the refugees. What I witnessed was abject boredom. Already exhausted people waiting in long lines, talk of utter terror, pain, war, bombing, long journeys or no talk at all. Nothing positive to focus on but the last tent where one may board a bus home.
My parents encouraged my wish to travel to Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire to help as much as I were able. While the entire world focuses on Libya, the refugees are forgotten. My will is to bring the refugees a new hope. My wish is to focus on the children. For this, I require your help.
My name is Hind Houas. I am a university student in Tatouine Tunisia. I am free for the first time in my life. The children have nothing to occupy their time at Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire. Assist me in helping humanity and join me in my conception: A Toy for Every Refugee Girl and Boy."
I am making an honest plea to the international community to help the children until and if they are able to go home. My mission is to collect books, toys, games, puzzles, balls, dolls, anything at all that you feel a child will benefit from while standing in long lines daily with nothing to do but wish to go home. My home address is below. My Father will assist me in collecting all packages sent. I entrust this world with my address because the children at Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire need our help. This is a simple way to help even if you are not on the ground. The UN is there but they are there for emergent purposes only: food, water, and medical care.
Please send a small item to: Houas Hind/Houas Othman Lycée Cité 7 November Tataouine 3263, Tunisia. It is legitimate, safe and Susan Marie Public Relations of New York, United States, is endorsing my initiative 100%.
I spoke with one young boy in the camp and he said to me, "All I want is to go home."
Hind Houas 2011
* Note from Susan Marie: Hind is visiting the camp regularly; this is an account of her visit. She had asked me how can we help the people in the camp? They are so bored, sad and tired and only focus on what they went through with no hope or future to look forward to. She emailed me her account with her idea. It caused me to think of times when I am bored and feel I have nothing to do. I thought then of the people of Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire. They just went through a full scale revolt. The adults are barely able to comprehend the current situation, let alone the children, left to occupy themselves.
I met Hind 5 days after The Jasmine Revolt in Tunisia. Please take my hand in lending a hand to Hind, then all of us can lend a global hand to the children of Ben Guirdan Ras El Jedire Refugee Camp.
Youth are our future.
She has dedicated this first article of hers to Tunisia, all the Tunisian people and those who stood by the people of Tunisia who fought for their freedom. To the memory of all decent people who wanted nothing but to be FREE.