Despair and hunger at camp near border

(Allan Jacob)
Filed on March 13, 2011
Despair and hunger at camp near border

A chorus of voices chanting ‘take us home, take us home’ grows louder as the van comes to a halt at the transit camp for migrants in Sucha, about 10 kilometres from the Tunisian border with Libya.

Refugees from Bangladesh and Sudan rush towards the vehicle, expecting some food, but are disappointed as the press team steps out with bags and cameras.

Despair and hunger at camp near border (/assets/oldimages/alan_12032011.jpg)Though disppointed, many do the next best thing, pull photographers aside and pose for pictures. Some wear sunglasses as the snappers get into action. The chanting is right in your ears now as the men surround the group. Cornered, the media splits, melts into the throng and tell a story tinged with sadness..

Many have been stranded for two weeks here because their governments have been unable to organise flights to their home countries. The camp has a majority of single men, mostly labourers from from Bangladesh, Sudan, Somalia and Egypt. Aid agencies and Tunisian officials at the camp estimate the numbers to be 18,000, with 14,000 of them Bangladeshis.

Women and children number 500, mostly from Sudan, and live apart from the men in tents designated for them. Security is tight here and access to the area depends on the mood of the guards stationed at the entrance.

Clothes, plastic bags, food and paper are littered all over the place and many find it convenient to defecate in the open. The stench of urine gets stronger as you walk past the rows of tents and further into the sandy area where desert plants show off their tufts of foliage.

Despair and hunger at camp near border (/assets/oldimages/border_13032011.jpg)

As you walk back, a Bangladesh man steps out into the sun with the cool breeze on his bare back for a long overdue bath from a small pan. From the corner of the eye, you notice a Tunisian National Guard security official official stepping out of the shadows and tailing you. Time for a few questions, but he shoots first. ‘’What you doing here, nationality?’’ in halting English. Introductions done, he relaxes, lights a cigarette and gives you the inside story.

‘’There has been some fighting here between two groups,’’ he begins. You ask his name, he brushes aside the question. ‘’The Africans and Bangladeshis don’t get along, so we had to split them and keep them apart. The longer they stay here, the worse the situation will get.’’

A mass of Bangladeshi who have gathered in front of their tent have a lot of woes to share. Rashid Chowdhury says he has been stranded here for almost two weeks now. ‘’No one from our embassy has met us. There is a shortage of food. I have been hungry for two days now. Do you have some food to offer?

Others try to shout him down in a bid to explain their woes. Language is no barrier and a smattering of English, Hindi and Bengali will suffice “Please let our officials know what we are going through, this is hell,’’ says Faisal Sharif.

Despair and hunger at camp near border (/assets/oldimages/border1_13032011.jpg)

Many say they were beaten by the Libyans at the border. ‘’Our mobile phones and cash were all taken by the Libyans before we crossed into Tunisia. After the agony of losing it all, the wait here in killing us,’’ says Jamal Ahmed.

Gerhard J. W Putman-Cramer, chief of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), admits problems, and says it is also a cultural issue. ‘’People from Bangladesh prefer eating rice, which we find hard to prepare here. The Tunisian authorities and other agencies are doing a wonderful job under the circumstances.’’

Mohammed Nore-Alam, First Secretary of the Bangladesh mission in Geneva, says his mission is aware of the plight of Bangladeshi refugees and is working to resolve their transit woes. ‘’It’s a matter of coordination. We hope to fly them back soon. Currently, we are sending 200 Bangladeshis home daily. With more flights being arranged, we hope to increase that number to 1,000.’’

Meanwhile, a few colleagues from the press corp, including this newspaper, were struck by stones while snapping the long lines of thousands waiting for food. ‘’We didn’t know where it came from, but we decided not to stay longer as they were turning violent and desperate,’’ according to a photographer.

Putman-Cramer of the UN later visited the UAE camp and lauded the facilities. ‘’We are talking to officials here to help us cope with the rush at camp Sucha. If they agree, we could move some familes here and ease the conditions there.’’ -

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