Tunisia Embraces A Stream Of Refugees From Libya

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People fleeing Libya carry their luggage to the Tunisian border post in Jdir on Wednesday. i

People fleeing Libya carry their luggage to the Tunisian border post in Jdir on Wednesday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People fleeing Libya carry their luggage to the Tunisian border post in Jdir on Wednesday.

People fleeing Libya carry their luggage to the Tunisian border post in Jdir on Wednesday.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A steady stream of people walked across Libya's western border into Tunisia on Wednesday. Libyan authorities have stopped monitoring the border, and Tunisian officials estimate that thousands have fled across it.

Tunisian authorities are entirely in control now. They have sent extra military troops — not to close the border, just to manage the inflow. The border is open to anyone who wants to get out of Libya and cross into the country where the Arab uprisings began.

Mohammed Abdu, an Egyptian man, was one of those who crossed Wednesday.

"Situation is not good. It's very bad. It's very bad. All the night, every day, all the night, we hear, 'da da da da — da da da da,' " he said, mimicking gunfire. "I don't sleep from three days ago."

Abdu came from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, less than a hundred miles to the east. Many people had similar accounts of constant gunfire there. And many said it was the one part of Libya where leader Moammar Gadhafi still has some supporters.

The Gadhafi people are always in the main plaza singing, said Mehdi Khamali, who spoke in German. He said the people who are willing to stand with Gadhafi get better pay, better food and better housing.

'Please Help Me'

The vast majority of the people coming across Wednesday were men, and most were Tunisian. They said they were singled out for harsh treatment by Gadhafi's police, who blamed the Tunisians for starting the trouble.

Two Tunisian men whipped off their shirts and showed purple bruises across their backs, where they said they were beaten

The news that Tunisians are being beaten for being Tunisian has prompted a furious response. Hundreds of cars, festooned with Tunisian flags, have rushed to the border to meet the arriving Tunisian workers. Local residents contributed money to charter buses to pick up anyone who needed a ride.

Having just overthrown their own authoritarian government, these Tunisians are still swept up with liberation passion, and they embraced the few Libyans who arrived with tales of struggle against the Gadhafi regime.

Omar Muhammed al Sahdi vowed he would return to his homeland to continue the fight. At first he said he didn't want to identify himself for fear of jeopardizing his family's safety. But then he changed his mind and turned to foreign reporters to make an appeal.

"Please help me. Everybody in the world. Please. I need help," he said. "The Libyan people need help."

Trouble On The Way

But it is clear from those arriving here that Gadhafi's people are still a force to be reckoned with in Libya. Abdu, the Egyptian man, said he and his traveling companions encountered several pro-Gadhafi thugs on their way to the border.

"They take my flash memory. They take my mobile phone. They take my SIM card," he said.

Other people said they had been robbed of their money on their way, though others said there are Libyan police who are "with the people" and attempting to maintain some law and order.

All those arriving from Libya insisted that Gadhafi has lost his people. Several said his real power and influence now barely extends beyond Tripoli.

And that means the outflow of people from Libya is bound to continue. The Tunisian Red Crescent has established a reception center, and the United Nations' refugee agency is preparing to set up tents to house anyone arriving.

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