Inside A Refugee Camp At The Libyan-Tunisian Border

Thousands of foreign workers and many Libyans are continuing to flee Libya for neighboring Tunisia. U.N. officials at the border describe the situation as an emergency heading for a crisis.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Libya today, another protest in the capital, Tripoli, was put down by the forces of leader Moammar Gadhafi. Several hundred impromptu marches were stopped by tear gas and live fire. In some other cities, rebels did battle with Gadhafi's forces.

Meanwhile, at the Tunisian border, the flow of foreign workers fleeing Libya has slowed somewhat. But thousands of mostly poor migrant workers from Egypt, Bangladesh, and several African countries are still camped out on the Tunisian side. They're waiting for transport home.

NPR's David Greene is there.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

DAVID GREENE: This is the border between Libya and Tunisia. And since the unrest over in Libya began, close to 80,000 people have crossed right at this spot. And I want to give you a tour of the refugee camp here. The first stop for people is right where I'm standing. People show their passports, then they're allowed into Tunisia. They're feeling exhausted as they enter this world of confusion.

(Soundbite of wheels)

GREENE: Some people are dragging their roll aboard suitcases with bum wheels that are scraping up the tracks. There are aid groups here who are giving out food, and there are also entrepreneurs who are selling Marlboro Lights. Nearly all of the people arriving are men from other countries who were employed in Libya, and they wanted out as fast as possible.

Just a little while ago here, I met Steven Asante(ph). He's 25 years old from Ghana and he was doing masonry work in Libya. His story is like so many others. As he approached the border in a car, Libyan guards stopped him and ordered him to hand over his camera memory card, his cell phone.

Mr. STEVEN ASANTE (Masonry Worker): They're not allow you to take phone.

GREENE: How long did you have to wait to get across the border?

Mr. ASANTE: No. No, they - no, maybe half hour or one hour time.

GREENE: What is your plan now?

Mr. ASANTE: My plan, I want to - my aim is go Ghana. My ambition to go Ghana. So I need peace.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: As newcomers like Steven walk a few steps farther into the camp, they'd be wise to stop at this food tent over here. The bearded man inside is Redah Firjani(ph). He's volunteering for a Muslim religious organization in Tunisia.

Mr. REDAH FIRJANI (Religious Aid Volunteer): Yeah, I am the bread man. I'm cheese man, bread man, yeah.

GREENE: How many days have you been here?

Mr. FIRJANI: About four days.

GREENE: It feels like things are going okay here. I expected to see people very hungry, very...

Mr. FIRJANI: They look like they are very hungry. But really, when they find we are here to help them - to give them what - try to give them.

GREENE: You've got plenty of bread here, it looks like. You've got extra bread.

Mr. FIRJANI: We have bread over there, you can have - it's bread everywhere, over there and tuna fish. Yeah, tuna fish, have them.

GREENE: Making your way deeper into the camp, you really begin to feel how lives are teetering. Blankets are spread out across this windy, dusty wasteland. This looks to be size of maybe four or five football fields. The Tunisian government and the United Nations have set up tents here, but a lot of people are building their own using tree branches.

The few women and children who have arrived here have been moved quickly out of the camp. But for these thousands of men, there's been no showering for days. They're sitting on the ground playing dominoes or walking around with chunks of bread, just chatting with one another. Nobody can call their family since their cell phones were taken away.

I met an Egyptian man who only gave his first name, Anwar. He was standing at the blanket where he slept last night. He opened up his passport for me. He said he wanted to show me how clean-shaven he usually looks.

You're showing me a picture here. What - you think you look different now?

ANWAR: I am Egyptian lawyer. Look at this photography. Look at me.

GREENE: How do you think you are different now?

ANWAR: I don't know. No shower, no bathroom, very cold. I feel I am (foreign language spoken) - I am not man. I feeling I am not man.

(Soundbite of whistling)

GREENE: And once you make your way all the way through to the opposite of the camp, you get here, to where there are busses being loaded as quickly as possible. Some of those busses are going to an airport about two hours away. People are jumping on busses, trying to get through the windows and security guards are grabbing them to get off the bus.

Once they get to the airport, where they go, a lot of people don't know. Britain, for one thing, is flying people to Egypt. But getting on this bus means you leave this camp, a lot of people say the next stop they just have no idea.

I'm David Greene, NPR News on the Libyan-Tunisian border.

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