â€˜Save us from this area, from this warâ€™: Refugees seek safety in Tripoli school
Throughout the past month of violence that has gripped Libyaâ€™s capital, aid groups have repeatedly warned of the grave danger 3,400 migrants and refugees face while detained near Tripoliâ€™s front lines.
The UNâ€™s refugee agency, UNHCR, said an airstrike landed near a migrant detention centre that holds more than 500 people on 8 May, injuring two people. And in late April conflicting reports emerged that a militia had opened fire in another Tripoli facility.
But there are more than 600,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Libya, and the majority are not in detention. That doesnâ€™t mean they are safe. In Tripoli, many are among the more than 59,000 people forced to flee their homes by the fighting, which has pitted general Khalifa Haftarâ€™s Libyan National Army against forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord.
Last week, journalists Francesca Mannocchi and Alessio Romenzi visited a school-turned-shelter for migrants and refugees taken out of parts of the city that had become battle zones.
Run by the Libyan Red Crescent in a relatively safe part of the city, it is the main refuge for a population the UN says are â€œespecially vulnerableâ€ as they donâ€™t have extended family in the country to rely on, and â€œface discrimination in accessing collective shelters and other servicesâ€.
Asaad al-Jafeer, a Libyan Red Crescent employee who works at the shelter, said his organisation is struggling to provide for the approximately 150 people living in the school, including more than 40 children and six pregnant women. Most are from Sudan and Eritrea, and have already survived multiple conflicts and sometimes horrific journeys to get to Libya.
Getting the residents out of harmâ€™s way and into the shelter was no easy task because there has been no real break in the shooting and shelling, explained al-Jafeer. â€œIt was difficult to [evacuate them],â€ he said. â€œIt was very dangerous, for them and for us.â€
â€œWe should all be evacuatedâ€
Abulrasoul Omar Khareef and his family have been in Tripoli for six years, and were living in a southern part of the city when fighting broke out in early April.
Khareef, 38, and his wife escaped Darfur in 2003 after a militia known as the Janjaweed destroyed their village. They are registered asylum seekers.
â€œI never considered paying a smuggler to cross the Mediterranean,â€ said Khareef. â€œBut [after the fighting in Tripoli began]... I changed my mind. We have escaped from a war and now weâ€™re suffering the consequences of other wars... We should all be evacuated.â€
Since the outbreak of the fighting in and around Tripoli, the UN has evacuated 309 refugees, flying them to Italy or Niger, but the last plane out was on 29 April.
â€œI want to leave Libya, for my children, who have the right to live in safety. And to see a smile on my wife's face for once, which I always see covered with tears."
Jihan, 26, arrived in Libya last December from Sudan with her husband and two young children. She lost track of her husband three months ago; he left to look for work and never came back.
During the journey to Tripoli, Jihan was raped in the city of Sebha â€“ a people-smuggling hub where migrants have long complained of torture, extortion, and forced prostitution.
â€œEvery time I close my eyes I live that nightmare,â€ she said. â€œI canâ€™t forget.â€
Nowhere to go
Nafisa Saed Musa and Abdalleh el Taib, mother and son, fled to Libya together after their village in Darfur was burned to the ground in a Janjaweed attack that killed Musaâ€™s husband and two other sons (Taibâ€™s father and his two brothers).
â€œMy mother and me; we moved from one city to another and the wars followed us,â€ said Taib, 27, who was kidnapped and tortured for two months in Libya by a group that demanded money for his release. The scars from burns inflicted by his captors are visible on his arms.
Musa, 44, said other Darfuri asylum seekers pitched in to pay her sonâ€™s ransom. â€œSome people gave 20 [Libyan] dinars, some 50, until we collected the amount they wantedâ€¦ [Other people from Darfur] knew I didnâ€™t have money enough to pay, and he is the only child I have left.â€
Taib wants to go to Europe, but Musa just wants safety. â€œWe donâ€™t know where to go,â€ she said. â€œI just ask to be saved; me and my son. Save us from this area, from this war.â€
A shelter struggling to provide
Desks have been pushed aside to make room for the residents, their belongings, and newly-delivered aid.
A UNHCR spokesperson said the agencyâ€™s Libyan partner, LibAid, has brought supplies to the shelter including blankets, sleeping mats, and hygiene items.
The Libyan Red Crescentâ€™s al-Jafeer says locals have pitched in to help too. â€œSome people in the area are bringing clothes and food and water, especially for the children,â€ he said.
Still, they are having trouble providing for everyone in the school: â€œWe are facing great difficulties,â€ al-Jafeer said. â€œWe donâ€™t have enough food or water.â€
Munir, third from the left in purple trousers, sits in the schoolâ€™s courtyard with a group of other Eritrean migrants.
While most of the shelterâ€™s residents were evacuated from their own homes, the 27-year-old said the two Eritrean families pictured were in the Qasr bin Ghashir detention centre outside Tripoli when fighters broke in and attacked late last month.
â€œAfter the beginning of the war [in Tripoli], we stayed alone â€“ without guards â€“ for five days,â€ he said. â€œWe had nothing to eat; we gave water and sugar to the children, but nothing for us. We were terrified; we didnâ€™t know what was happening outside, just hearing shootings and bombing.â€
Then armed men came in, â€œasking for our money and mobilesâ€, he said. They â€œstarted shooting, randomly.â€
Unit, pictured above second from the left with her two-year-old daughter Milad (the pair are also pictured in the photo at the top of this article), was also detained at Qasr bin Ghashir.
"It was very difficult to live in the centre, even before the fighting,â€ said the 24-year-old. â€œWomen and children are separated from men. Families are divided. We could not talk to our husbands.â€
While UNHCR said one church in Tripoli is hosting around 40 migrants and refugees, this school is the only shelter dedicated to this purpose.
There is also a day centre in the capital that offers medical and humanitarian assistance, According to a UNHCR spokesperson, it also â€œprovides housing to the most vulnerable refugees, with refugee caregivers that are able to host them and provide for them for a limited period of timeâ€.
Al-Jafeer said the risk of moving the residents out of harmâ€™s way was worth it: â€œThank God, we did it. For the Sudanese it has been particularly dangerous, because they speak Arabic [as do the militias fighting for control of Tripoli], so many of them told us that the soldiers wanted to force them to go to the front to fight. For this, we had to be quick to save them.â€