Escape From Tripoli

Date Publish: 
03/06/11
Region-Country: 
Tunisia / Africa and Middle East

He was standing alone, frequently stepping forward to take his
position in a queue that snaked for hundreds of metres into the
departure lounge of the Djerba airport in Tunisia. Abdel Samad
Ahmed Ibrahim, an Egyptian national, could not believe he was a few
metres away from boarding an IOM chartered flight back to his
homeland.

Abdel is one of 3,000 Egyptian nationals who are being
repatriated on board 24 IOM chartered flights. When I met him he
was in deep thought, withdrawn from his group of fellow Egyptians
who were advancing at a snail’s pace towards the departure
lounge.

"I am a builder, like many Egyptians in Libya," he told me when
I introduced myself. "I arrived in Tripoli 16 years ago. Though I
had a steady job, I did not want to bring my family to live with me
in Libya, as if I had anticipated this would happen."

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Abdel told me that although life was not easy in Libya, he
nevertheless managed to provide for his family back in Cairo by
sending monthly remittances. The guarantee of a regular job in
Libya was more than what he could find back in Egypt. He said, he
was settled in Tripoli and had resigned himself to a life away from
his loved ones as he only managed to visit his family once or twice
a year. He had hoped to stay in Libya for four more years to send
his daughter through university, when events in the country took a
tense turn.

"I decided to run for my life immediately after Gaddafi's
speech," Abdel told me. This was the speech that the Libyan leader
made from a rooftop in Tripoli, threatening to crush the opposition
"to the last drop of his blood."

Abdel remembers that when he heard the speech, he told his
Egyptian mates that there would be no peace in Libya from then on.
The following morning militias were roaming the streets in Tripoli.
He was so scared that he did not dare to step outside his house. It
was only after the food had run out that he decided to take a
chance and head towards the border with Tunisia with friends in a
hired taxi.

"We paid 180 dinars (USD 147) each for the 160 km ride to the
Ras Al Hadjir border point," Abdel said. This amount was three
times more expensive than what it used to be. But then, Abdel
added, things had started to become very expensive in Tripoli, with
a bottle of water going for as much as 5 dinars (USD 4), up from a
mere quarter dinar.

Abdel said he was not prepared for what he and many other
migrants would encounter along the road to the border. He recalled
that armed men stopped them as many as ten times, each time
stripping them of their belongings. It was during the ride that
Abdel lost USD 2,000 which he had saved over years of hard work. In
addition, he was eased of his watch, mobile phone and a whole bag
full of dresses for his wife. When I found him at the airport, he
was clutching a tiny bag that was all he had managed to save. "The
militias turned into animals," he said. "When they order you to
give them something you do not argue. One of my colleagues who
tried to resist ended up with a bullet in his shin."

But on their long journey home, Abdel and other migrants also
received lots of help. He recalled that while they were stuck at
the border on the Libyan side, many had nothing to eat for two
days. As soon as they crossed into Tunisia, people streamed to
offer them food, drinks and blankets. Yet, as Abdel prepares to
board his flight home, he cannot help but think of what he has had
to leave behind.

"I have nothing to show my family after 16 years working in
Libya," he said, sobbing. “But I am happy that I escaped the
madness that is happening in Tripoli,” he added.

IOM continues to evacuate thousands of migrants stranded in
Libya. Charter planes provided to IOM by the British government's
Department for International Development (DFID) and the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will allow the Organization to
evacuate up to 8,800 Egyptian migrants from Djerba in Tunisia to
the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in the coming days.

To help IOM to get Abdel and others like him home safely, please
click "_blank">here.

Egyptian migrants at Djerba airport. © IOM 2011