Yalda Hakim reports on the human cost of thebattle over Gaddafi's rule, as thousands of refugees flee across the Libyan border into Tunisia.
Sunday, March 27, 2011 - 20:32

More than 100,000 people have fled the conflict in Libya and crossed the border into Tunisia, but what is life like for the displaced in a country suffering its own turmoil?

Yalda Hakim reports from the border refugee camp on the human cost of the battle over Muammar Gaddafi's rule.

She sees the thousands of tents set up in a makeshift city by the UN and aid groups and finds herself in the middle of angry crowds; fighting over the shortage of food and pleading for help in escaping the crisis.

And it's not just Libyans pouring from the troubled country; Yalda also meets Somalians, who've already fled from one chaotic country to be caught up in another, and Bangladeshi migrant workers, who are now refugees looking to Europe for help.

WATCH - Click to see Yalda's report.

PHOTO GALLERY - Yalda writes more about what she saw in a photo gallery of the refugee camp.

WORLD NEWS AUSTRALIA - The latest SBS news coverage of the unrest in the Arab world.

INTERACTIVE - An interactive guide to the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

GADDAFI FACTFILE - Why are there over 100 different ways of spelling Muammar Gaddafi's name? Find out that and more about his life in our factfile.

BEHIND THE SCENES - Presenter Mark Davis talks about this week's program, including more from Yalda on location in Tunisia.



You can also click here to see all of Dateline's stories on the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.

Gaddafi Factfile

Throughout the Libyan leader's life, there's been debate about how his name should be spelt and pronounced by the Western media. Is it Moammar Gaddafi? Muamar Kaddafi? Or Mu'ammar Qadafi?

SBS has chosen another alternative, Muammar Gaddafi, but according to ABC News in the United States, there are in fact up to 112 different variations.

His Wikipedia entry explains that his name is always written the same in Arabic, معمر القذافي, but has gained different spellings in the Roman alphabet through the varied interpretations and pronunciations of Arabic words.

The BBC also uses Muammar Gaddafi, but, for example, Moamer Kadhafi is the choice of press agency AFPCNN spells the name as Moammar Gadhafi; and the White House has gone for Muammar el-Qaddafi.

As for Gaddafi himself, his official website calls him Muammar Al Gathafi, but it seems that all the variations can be considered equally correct.

There's more about Gaddafi and his life in our biography, photo gallery and Dateline's 2010 interview with him. Click any of the links above to find out more.



The past month has seen a mind-spinning amount of government collapses and tumult across North Africa - one country's problems ricocheting into the next. This week, it's Libya in the spotlight, with Colonel Gaddafi now battling it out with NATO forces, as well as his local opponents. And it's the neighbouring countries who are sharing the pain. The conflict has forced over 200,000 people to flee Libya - about half of those have cross under to neighbouring Tunisia, where Yelda Hakim and her cameraman, Jorge Zarate found the exodus was posing huge difficulties there and as-yet-unknown political consequences.

REPORTER: Yalda Hakim

Driving to the Libyan border from the town of Ra's Adjir, there's a sharp reminder of this volatile crisis... pro-Gaddafi supporters who have crossed into Tunisia to keep our cameras away from the flood of refugees. At the border, we have to get out and walk. Hami Bena Ahmed is my translator.

HAMI BEN AHMED, TRANSLATOR: The green flag is Libyan.

REPORTER: The green flag is Libyan, that's where the Libyan border is?

HAMI BEN AHMED: Yes. Yes. The Libyan border started with this blue gate. Blue gate is the line.

REPORTER: Uh-huh. Can we get any further from here?


REPORTER: This is it?

HAMI BEN AHMED: Yeah. There are some refugees coming now. See them?

REPORTER: Yes, over there?


REPORTER: So they bring with them what they can?

HAMI BEN AHMED: They bring what they can. They bring, especially, blankets.

Suddenly, we hear the eerie voice of the man at the centre of this crisis, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, broadcast on loudspeakers.

HAMI BEN AHMED: That's the speech of Gaddafi.

REPORTER: What's he saying?

HAMI BEN AHMED: "Revolution, revolution."

With his words ringing in their ears Libyan and foreign workers stream across - they receive an emergency supply of food and water - personal gifts from Tunisians dealing with their own political crisis. I meet Dr Ali Bashir Mohammed as he crosses the border. He lived in Libya for 20 years, and I'm surprised to hear what he has to say about the country he's just left behind.

DR ALI BASHIR MOHAMMED: Libya is very good.

REPORTER: It's good?


REPORTER: And Gaddafi is good?


REPORTER: Yeah? You were happy?

DR ALI BASHIR MOHAMMED: You can happy. You can happy.

HAMI BEN AHMED: They don't speak - if you come to the Libyan, they say the situation on the other side - "Everything is fine. We are happy. Libya is OK." They have fear from the government - maybe they will kill us or something like that.

I find 9-year-old Rehab alone and surrounded by her family's belongings.

HAMI BEN AHMED (Translation): Where are you going?

REHAB (Translation): To Morocco.

She's waiting for her mother who's anxious to join her after being held up and searched by Libyan forces. Her mother tells me they drove from Zuwarah, 120km from the border.

REPORTER: Was she afraid?

REHAB'S MOTHER (Translation): Yeah - My daughter.

HAMI BEN AHMED: She said the children were really, really scary. They stopped cars, they tried to find things in our baggage - they feel really in fear.

REHAB'S MOTHER (Translation): She just screamed. They were Gaddafi's men, not;

HAMI BEN AHMED: She said when she sees a military officer she starts crying.

REPORTER: Did they fear for their lives?

HAMI BEN AHMED (Translation): Were you scared for your lives?

REHAB'S MOTHER (Translation): Yes, they were bombing; they were bombing;. firing rockets.

When I asked Rehab's father, Al-Karim, about the family's ordeal, he doesn't want to talk and I'm told after that he's afraid his words could be used against family left behind in Libya. The Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Tunisian aid groups have set up makeshift hospitals and before being put on buses, the refugees are given health checks.

REPORTER: What things concern you most? What outbreak of what kind of diseases worries you that may be infecting people?

DR SAMIR ABDUL JAWAD, TUNISIAN CIVIL PROTECTION (Translation): Infectious diseases - they are the serious concern - transmissible diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS. Diseases like scabies and conjunctivitis.

This is where the refugees are taken, and where I get a sense of the size of this crisis. The camp is a transit point for more than 20,000 people - mainly migrant workers from Bangladesh and Somalia. The United Nations was criticised for not responding quickly enough to this humanitarian crisis but they've now set up thousands of tents.

Within this large camp site, it seems that every country has divided themselves up, so we've got people from Bangladesh on this side, we've got some Somalis and Sudanese on the other side.

All day, hungry people queue up, waiting to collect their food rations and they're getting angry. 35-year-old Ahmed, says he has been waiting in the line for five hours.

AHMED (Translation): Every Bangladeshi wants to go back Bangladesh. No get food, no have water, no have sleeping condition, no have anyone - But why?

REPORTER: He says he hasn't eaten for at least five days and he isn't alone. Reem Aboud from the World Food Program, coordinating the rations, tells me they've been handing out 10,000 meals a day. That still means 10,000 others go hungry.

REEM ABOUD, WORLD FOOD PROGRAM: A lot of these people have been Bengali national whose have been staying here for several days now and they were looking at leaving a lot sooner than that and we're hoping that we start seeing more people being able to go home and less frustration in the camp, and also better management on the queues...

The pressure might be easing on the Tunisian-Libyan border, but things seem to be tensing up here. They're trying to rush in to get food, water, sanitation... Um... As you can see, there's a whole lot of pressure. The United Nations is closing that tent over there where the food is. People are desperate. There's about 20,000 refugees here in this camp, but people here are really, really desperate.

These Bangladeshis are considered luckier than most. The Italian and French governments have offered to help pay for them to return to Bangladesh and every day, a few hundred are put on buses to Djerba airport. But for the Somali refugees, it's a very different story. Having fled Libya from ongoing civil war and famine in their own country, they have nowhere to go.

MOHAMMED (Translation): If we had a government in my country, we would be better off there.

25-year-old Mohammed left Somalia three years ago with his wife. In Tripoli, where their baby was born, he worked as a labourer, his wife Habbiba, as a cleaner. But when fighting broke out in Libya, he says they had no choice but to leave.

MOHAMMED (Translation): They were killing people who were not born there - foreigners. We paid a neighbour and he helped us to the border but he could not protect us from the soldiers who beat us or the militia at checkpoints. As a Libyan national, he was unable to secure our safety. Thank God we finally arrived safely at the boarder.

Habbiba tells me she's constantly concerned about her and her baby's safety at the camp.

HABBIBA (Translation): Yes, why wouldn't I be afraid? If it rains this tent will collapse - I am very concerned for my baby. At night, if women go to the toilet, Bangladeshis might rape them, if your husband is not with you, they enter your tent because there is no lock to protect you. Yes, this morning, a man tried to come in here while I was alone - I ran out screaming. Last night, I went to the toilets and he grabbed other girls - we screamed - no security came but he ran off.

MOHAMMED (Translation): I am very worried about my future, we are refugees, we are asylum seekers.

Then, news spreads through the camp that Somalian politician Abdul Ghani has arrived - he calls himself "ambassador." and he's here to convince hundreds of his citizens to return to Somalia.

ABDUL GHANI, SOMALI POLITICIAN (Translation): Not all of you are willing to return to Somalia, you said that you would only return to Somalia as a last resort - how long are you prepared to wait, exhausting your other options?

But the crowd doesn't like what he's saying and things quickly get out of hand.

CROWD (Translation): We can't go back - kick him out!

The crowd are very hostile - they're demanding that the ambassador leave the camp. They're talking about their problems, the way they actually left the country, and the fighting in Libya, and they're saying the ambassador doesn't understand their problems - they want him out of the camp. Ahh...and they're calling for a mass protest tomorrow.

REPORTER: What do you want the ambassador to do?

MAN IN CROWD: To talk to the United Nations, Australia, Canada and the United Nations - no one wants to return back to Somalia.

It's a very hostile crowd indeed. They all have a story to tell. They all want to speak to me. They all want to leave this country, but they don't want to go back to Somalia.

As night falls, the mood of the camp changes, while fighting continues in Libya, tens of thousands more are leaving the country. But for these refugees, who've fled turmoil in their own countries in the hope of a better life, the future remains more uncertain than ever.

MARK DAVIS: That's making Christmas Island look pretty tame! Yelda Hachim reporting and undoubtedly many more people will cross that border before this crisis is over. There's an interactive guide to the Libyan conflict on our website, plus a photo gallery of more of Yelda and Jorge's pictures with commentary from their time in the camp.






Jorge Zarate


Hamdi Ben Ahmed



Micah mcgown







Original Music composed by


27th March 2011