Libyans Flee Across Border With Tunisia

In Libya, residents in cities held by the opposition are gripped with fear. Their cities may be in the hands of the rebels, but government troops are poised to attack. NPR's David Greene reports on three Libyans who managed to cross the border and tell their stories.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo.

Parts of Libya's Mediterranean coast have been the scene of gunfire and air strikes. But it's far quieter in other areas of the country. The revolution in some western cities began the same way as in Tripoli - people marched the streets, criticized Moammar Gadhafi for the first time and raised the flag of the opposition.

Now these places are not hotbeds of fighting, they are hotbeds of waiting. NPR's David Greene is in Tunisia. He spoke with people fleeing Libya about the scenes they left behind.

(Soundbite of car passing by)

DAVID GREENE: I'm standing on a road that cuts across the wind-swept desert. I'm looking at a green sign that says welcome to Tunisia in English and French and Arabic. And if I look a hundred yards in the other direction, it's the Libyan border. And we've heard about western Libya, cities like Zawiyah that have just been absolutely bombarded by the military.

But, then a lot of the entire region seems to be living without so much violence yet, and just a lot of fear. And people have been trickling across this border telling their stories.

Mr. ABDUL BASSET ISSA: I would like to speak in my right name, full name, because I'm going to say the truth and I'm going to die to say the truth.

GREENE: His name is Abdul Bassett Issa. He's a businessman, and was in Tripoli on February 17th. That's the day when the anger among Libyans spilled over. Issa was chanting with others that he wanted Gadhafi out of power.

Mr. ISSA: And suddenly I changed and started saying Gadhafi Adu Allah. Gadhafi is the enemy of Allah. Everybody's quiet. Quiet, very quiet. And I repeat again. I have the power. I never had that power. And people start joining us. About 500 in street.

GREENE: That's when the bullets started raining down. The government used force to break up those crowds. Issa's foot was peppered with bullets. He pulled his sock off and showed me. Over the weeks since February 17, he had been making his way towards Tunisia, hoping to get the bullets removed by Tunisian doctors, who are generally better trained.

Issa insists while some of the outward euphoria has faded for now, much of western Libya is still ready to fight for change.

Mr. ISSA: That area is under people control - under people control, not Gadhafi's control.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

GREENE: The TV in this border cafe where we were talking plays the news about Libya constantly.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: We met another Libyan here yesterday. He had stopped for lunch on the way to see a doctor. The man, who wouldn't give his name, lives in Nalout, a remote city a half hour into Libya. Back on February 17th, many in Nalout joined the anti-Gadhafi movement. They replaced the green government flags with older Libyan flags that have come to symbolize the opposition.

Three weeks later, this man said, people in Nalout can't tell which way their country is going. He turned his lunch table into a map. The ashtray was the city of Nalout.

Unidentified Man #2 (Through translator): So he said that this is the city, in the middle, and they have people against Gadhafi.

GREENE: The people against Gadhafi, he said, are forming a circle, guarding entrances to the city. There are rumors that the next circle, another 40 miles out, is government military. The whole time he told us this, the man fiddled with his car keys.

(Soundbite of car starting)

He drove away once, but then he pulled up outside again, and he spoke to our translator.

Unidentified Man #3 (Translator): The Libyan man came back in his van and he requested not to be shown in any image or camera, because he's afraid for his life. He said that the army is heavily armed and if they hear anything or if they find out anything that was revealed through him, they'll pursue him.

(Soundbite of car passing)

GREENE: We met another resident of Nalout at the border crossing. He wouldn't give us his name either. But he happened to be going to a city two hours into Tunisia. We were going that direction, and so we offered him a ride.

And as we drove, he told us about the fear in Nalout right now. He said people are staying off the streets. Many are huddled in their homes with family watching Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah, the Arab television networks. Just keeping track of every development across their country. And wondering if that day would come when Gadhafi's forces make their way to Nalout.

Unidentified Man #4: (Through translator) Of course I'm going to fight. We have Kalashnikovs that we got from the police. Those who work for the police, it's their weapons. They are with us in this fight.

GREENE: All right. Goodbye.

(Soundbite of door shutting)

I'm David Greene, NPR News, now pulling out of Mednine, Tunisia.

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