Normally an anonymous and deserted town on the border between Tunisia and Libya, Dehiba has for a number of weeks now become a hub of foreign journalists, aid workers and military personnel. Overwhelmed by the thousands of refugees who have passed through its streets, this village of 4,000 inhabitants is adapting – for better or worse – to its newfound fame, as the shells continue to rain down.
Intermittently between the smack of brick on wet concrete, the muffled sounds of war seep in. We hear a shell whistle as it sails through the air, and the moment of silence that precedes its detonation. BANG. Murad continues to lay brick, his sleeves rolled up. “In a month I’m getting married, so I have to finish the west side of the house. That’s the priority.” At the beginning of the conflict, he could sit all day watching the shells fall on the other side of the border from his terrace. But he soon grew tired of the spectacle, as did his neighbours, who used to come by for tea and enjoy his view of the war. Murad lives in the last house in Dehiba, the one closest to Libya. With an outstretched hand he indicates the frontier, running a mere 600 metres from his door. No barbed wire – just the desert, and his land, where he regularly recovers pieces of shrapnel. “I keep them as souvenirs, but I try to collect all of it – I don’t want the neighbourhood children playing with it.”
A city of refugees
In only a matter of weeks, Dehiba has seen tens of thousands of Libyan refugees pass through. Nearly 50,000 people have crossed the border to safety in Tunisia. There are families – women, children and the elderly, the least fortunate among them hosted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in two camps. The others wait in hotels and residences in Djerba or Tataouine.
Amir and his family arrived in Dehiba three days ago from Nalout. “There, the village is deserted, the streets are empty, shops have been closed for a good two months. Only the rebels remain, and they are retreating – Gaddhafi’s mercenaries will burn everything. Here we have been welcomed, but the children are afraid when they hear the bombs falling. The noise wakes them up at night, and during the day they cry.” To take their minds off of things, the Red Crescent organises workshops in drawing, pottery, and football. A dozen young Tunisian women have organised to help out. “I’m from Remada [50km from Dehiba].When I see what is happening so close by … Well, I’m not doing very much, it’s a bit like baby-sitting at times, but I like it,” says Amina, who is 17. At the end of the workshops, the women give the children flags and badges of the Libyan rebellion as prizes.
At Dehiba’s hospital, the waiting room is the preferred meeting place of local nurses, soldiers and journalists. They cool off next to the air conditioner, chatting in wheel chairs normally reserved for patients. They mainly talk about numbers. “How many Libyans arrived today? Did you hear the number of bombs dropped yesterday? They were meant to come all at once a little while ago…” And in this room, above all, one waits. Hours, sometimes days without seeing a single injury. “Gaddhafi’s forces have retaken ground, and can now fire on vehicles on the road to Nalut,” explains Mohammed, a nurse at the hospital. “The ambulance hasn’t come back since yesterday, nor any other vehicle from Libya. It’s too dangerous. So yes, there are wounded people on the other side of the border, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do for the moment.”
In the city, only commerce continues on as before. Ali, the proprietor of a cafe, is always on hand. He repeats the same twist of the wrist ad infinitum – attaching the handle to the base of the old Cimbali machine, waiting for the water to boil and fill the coffee cup, drop by drop. Sitting at the counter, men have their eyes on the television. Al-Jazeera news bulletins inform them of what is happening a few miles from home, on the other side of the mountains. On the main road, the only restaurant in town has made no changes to its menu. Many a curious journalist or humanitarian worker has entered, cash in hand, but the chef has preferred to remain faithful to his ‘spaghetti with spaghetti sauce’. Until now, no one had ever stopped in Dehiba.