ZERZES, 4 April 2011 — “We stopped everything we were doing”, exclaims Mahfoud Bessah, the 39-year-old community-based programme coordinator at IFRC’s regional delegation in Tunis. On 21 February, he headed over to the eastern border immediately upon hearing the first reports of people crossing over. The Tunisian Red Crescent and UNHCR were already discussing how to respond. Together with Fadhel Goudil, a first aid doctor, Bessah arrived in Ras Jedir, fearing the worst.
What they found was staggering. Up to 15000 people were crossing the border from Lybia into Tunisia every day. Equally impresive was the response: spontaneous solidarity and generosity, with the local population organizing “khafila” (caravans) to carry food and other goods to those arriving at the border, whatever their origin. It is this spirit of solidarity and volunteerism that saved the day, Bessah believes, as the international community had just begun to understand the significance, scale and scope of what was being set in motion.
Two immediate challenges had to be faced. First, the near-freezing weather for border crossers with little or no shelter. Second, the very spontaneity that got things moving resulted in some logistical challenges. A gentle euphemism for what Bessah says was “n’importe quoi” (nonsense). Storage for donated goods was in short supply. People were everwhere, with nowhere to go, some carrying ridiculously large suitcases or anything else they managed to escape with.
Shelter had to be improvised. Bessah had to travel to Mednine to find a factory that could provide enough blankets. The first tents were 12 by 12 meters, intended for use during weddings or other festivities — not exactly SPHERE standards. But at least people gained some protection against the cold.
Once again, it was the spirit of volunteerism that got the tents up. Tunisian Red Crescent members did much of the heavy lifting, propelled by a sense of great urgency.
Unfortunately but somewhat predictably, these rollercoaster and sometimes haphazard early days — combined with the fact that no one in the region had ever had to deal with such a situation — have had lasting consequences.
In his initial recommandations, Bessah insisted on the fact that there was no life-threatening emergencies, no dead or dying among the “walkers” arriving: “We have to be calm, but act quickly” is how he summed it up.
Six weeks later, the flow of people crossing the border has slowed, and international media attention is now focused on the Lybian conflict itself. But the work continues as thousands more arrive. Most worrying is the fact that fewer and fewer are able to repatriate, adding pressure even when conditions are slowly improving. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is running out of money to fund repatriation, and donor fatigue appears to be setting in. “Uncertainty characterizes the situation”, sums up Gérard Lautredou, Head of the Regional delegation. “Right now, we’ve got around 2500 people arriving each day, but what will happen if events provoke a sudden upsurge?” he asks.
IFRC is slated to open its own transit camp on 6 April, to relieve some of the pressure on the main camp, Shousha, and to allow for that camp to be reorganized to address some of the underlying causes for tension and difficulties. Nevertheless, uncertainty looms. For those ready and willing to return home, the uncertainty most difficult to bear is probably not knowing when they might be called to Djerba airport. And the fate of those convinced that going home is not an option due to fear of persecution will not resolved in the short term. All of this makes the daily work — now out of the limelight — of improving living conditions and organization even more important, whatever the numbers may be, today or tomorrow.