For Libyans fleeing Benghazi, U.N. action came too late

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2011 

SALLOUM, Egypt — Just hours earlier, Dr. Hana Galal personified Libya's potential future as a democratic state.

As a member of the liberated east's government, Galal would glide into the National Libyan Council's meetings, wearing her loosely fitted head scarf, and champion human rights issues, her lifelong passion. She met with leaders from around the world and made endless media pleas on behalf of the new government.

But by Saturday evening, she sat at the Egyptian-Libyan border with little more than the clothes on her back. She, along with thousands of other Benghazis, fled Libya's second-largest city today after it sustained its most aggressive attack by forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi, since splitting with the regime last month.

Yesterday's promise had become today's refugee.

And suddenly the movement that was spurred by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia was floundering throughout the region, from Bahrain to Yemen and now Libya, where one-time leaders of the liberated east were spread throughout. Some like Galal fleeing, while still others disappeared. The tide of democratic reform in the Middle East had turned into a protracted quagmire between the state and its people in several countries that sought to emulate Egypt and Tunisia.

In Libya, residents seemed equally frustrated with Gadhafi and the United Nations, which had voted Friday to protect Libyan civilians "by any means necessary," only to watch Gadhafi's forces strike a day later.

"It's one family against a whole country," Galal pleaded. "You know, we were tricked. We believed the international community when it said it would attack if he violated the ceasefire."

For the Libyans gathered here, the arrival of the French aircraft over Benghazi airspace and the firing of missiles by U.S. and its allies had come too late. They had, in a matter of hours, lost not only their home but also any hope that they could start a revolution in Libya. Reuters reported that at least 26 residents were killed and another 40 injured.

"If nothing happens, if Gadhafi stays in power, it's all a waste of the lives of those who died for this," said Galal's brother in law, Mohammed Gtat, 51, who fled with Galal.

Galal, an international law professor at Benghazi's only university until last month's uprising, said she didn't know who'd been betrayed more — she or her students. She'd taught her students to trust in international law. And she, in turn, believed the international community would intervene if Gadhafi violated the cease-fire.

"What was I teaching them?" she asked aloud. "We believed in the no fly zone. We believed in the process."

The bombardment of her neighborhood Saturday morning caught her flatfooted. Her walls shook, and the children screamed. She grabbed a bag of clothes and her passport and took off for the border, saying she felt she had to get her 8 and 10-year-old sons to safety.

The crowds at the border seem to arrive in waves, Egyptian border officials said. The first came in around 6 a.m., having left in the middle of the night, when word of the attacks first spread through Benghazi, and made the six-hour drive. The second arrived around noon, leaving at dawn. Still others, like Galal, arrived at 6 p.m. when it was clear that Benghazi was under attack from small-arms fire, artillery shells, rockets, air strikes and missile strikes.

At those times the border was on the brink of chaos. Nearly everyone stuffed their cars with blankets and mattresses. Parents brought diapers and formula. One man told border guards he came only with his daughter, fleeing after a morning run to the grocery store became so deadly that he didn't have time to get his wife. Still another said he left when neighbors woke each other up to see the attack down the street.

Fights erupted as an enraged population let out their frustrations at the uncertainty thrust upon them. With no cellphone service, many learned the latest from one another or from the Egyptian border officials keeping track of the fast-paced developments of the day.

The border was already filled with hundreds of undocumented African workers who have been living at the border for weeks in some cases, waiting for some resolution. At the height of their frustration, the arriving Libyans would call them mercenaries brought in by Gadhafi to kill them.

United Nations and Egyptian Red Crescent workers awaited the Libyans, though they said they had no idea how many would be arriving. Unlike the African workers, many Libyans fleeing Saturday had a home to go to in Egypt, usually a relative's.

A local tribal sheikh and his community had prepared extra meals for those at the border in their new daily ritual. When a driver tried to charge a Libyan family extra to go into Egypt, he yelled: "How can you charge them? They just came out of a war."

Indeed, Egypt had stationed ten tanks at the border, all pointed toward Libya.

Most council members fled to the border town of Tobruk, Galal said, including council president Mustapha Abdel Jalil, who told Al Jazeera that rebel forces had shot down their own plane.

But no one had any illusions about who was in charge. Libya's fate would no longer be decided by a ragtag force that had once taken town after town only to lose them to Gadhafi or self appointed government. It would be up to the international community.

Without their help, "It's the end of democracy in the third world," Gtat said, before he and Galal left for Alexandria, Egypt.

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