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Refugees Stream Into Tunisia To Flee Libya Fighting

Cars are lined up at a border crossing in Dhibat, Libya, waiting to cross into Tunisia. Libyan rebels took the desert post from Ghadafi forces last week.
Eleanor Beardsley
Cars are lined up at a border crossing in Dhibat, Libya, waiting to cross into Tunisia. Libyan rebels took the desert post from Ghadafi forces last week.

There have been reports over the past 10 days in Libya of heavy fighting between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government rebels in a mountainous region southwest of Tripoli, prompting civilians to flee for Tunisia through a border post that was captured by the rebels last week.

Less than a week ago, the desert border post was controlled by Gadhafi's forces. But in a nighttime battle last Thursday, rebels took it.

"The battle lasted three hours and then Gadhafi's soldiers ran over the border into Tunisia," said 24-year-old rebel Haythem, who took part in the fighting. "It was a great win because we got cars and guns and we also gained valuable experience."

Haythem says the rebels are getting better organized, and are also heartened by recent NATO airstrikes.

When Gadhafi was in charge of the border post, Libyans weren't allowed to cross into Tunisia. But on this day, a line of dusty cars and pickup trucks loaded with families and whatever possessions they could pack in, stretched as far as the eye could see. Everyone said they were fleeing Gadhafi's onslaught. One 25-year-old man, who seemed shaken and didn't want to give his name, set out on foot with his father three days ago from the besieged town of Yafran.

"It's a war," he said. "It's a war there, and the army of Gadhafi target us by the rockets and bomb us by the tanks. And his forces entered the center of our city.

"It's a hell there where I live."

The rugged Nafusa Mountains, which stretch from the Tunisian border to just south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, look like a chain of giant mesas from the American far West. This region of western Libya is largely inhabited by Berbers, who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans. In the past, Gadhafi suppressed their language and culture, so there is no love for the Libyan dictator here.

The U.N. estimates that more than 30,000 Libyans fled into southern Tunisia this month to escape the shelling and fighting.

At a refugee camp that recently sprouted near the border, workers put up more tents. Camp supervisor Agron al-Mundi says he left his job as a car salesman to come here and help his fellow Libyans. He says the camp has 886 people, including 150 families.

"I expect more to come in," he says. "As it is a war, so everyone will be fleeing the country."

Mundi walks through the camp, past a crowd clamoring for food packages being handed out from the back of a pickup truck.

In a tent at the end of a row is Adi Massaouda and her three daughters, who have just arrived from the town of Nalut, about 40 miles from the Tunisian border.

"Gadhafi's mercenaries were coming into our houses and we were scared, so we ran away," she says.

Refugees crossing the border say Gadhafi's forces are terrorizing people any way they can. They are gunning down flocks of sheep just to wreck livelihoods, the refugees say. But they say Arabs and Berbers are now united in their opposition to Gadhafi.

Outside a Tunisian house on the border, several Libyan men sit on a rug, smoking and drinking tea. From their vantage point on a hill, they gaze out at the desert, the mountains and the country they fled. One peers through a pair of binoculars.

These men say they first thank God for their safety and then NATO. And now they pray that the harsh terrain in their homeland will help the rebels beat Gadhafi.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.