RAS JEDIR, Tunisia — With six relatives and several suitcases crammed into a sagging, dirt-sprayed Mercedes van, a well-dressed Libyan man rode through the border crossing into Tunisia around midday Thursday. His forehead was creased with worry, but when asked why he'd left his country with what looked like enough luggage for weeks, his answer was nonchalant.
"Just for a visit," he said. Then he pointed to the young girl asleep in his lap and added, "Medical checkups, for the kids." With that, the van drove off down the flat desert highway west into Tunisia, its overwhelmed chassis nearly scraping the asphalt.
The culture of fear and secrecy inculcated by Col. Moammar Gadhafi over more than four decades doesn't end at the Libyan border. Many Libyans, foreign workers and diplomats who left Gadhafi's western stronghold for Tunisia this week were tight-lipped or dismissive about the allied airstrikes and political turmoil they left behind, perhaps fearing reprisals by his regime.
After nearly a week of assaults against Gadhafi's forces by the U.S. and its European allies, there's been no massive influx of Libyans into Tunisia, just a few hundred people crossing each day, many saying they're on routine business — even if their volume of luggage suggests otherwise.
International aid groups have been bracing for a surge of Libyan refugees that has yet to materialize, much like Iraq in the early months of its civil war. Ambulances remain parked at the crossing, waiting to ferry victims of serious injuries, but paramedics and Tunisian policemen said they hadn't seen any.
Those who cross at Ras Jedir, not far from the Mediterranean coast, often stop just to buy car insurance or use the toilets before wordlessly continuing on their way.
"No Libyans have approached the aid community to ask for assistance," said Ziad Ayad, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Ras Jedir. "We're not present inside the border, so our information is limited."
Family and tribal ties straddle the border — there's long been a healthy trade of fuel and food between the two countries — and many Libyan refugees are believed to be staying with Tunisian relatives. But if they were fleeing missiles or merely hoping to wait out the crisis, Libyans shared little with the Tunisian police officers who waved them through after quick checks of their vehicles and passports.
"All you say is, 'Hello,' and right away they answer, 'Mia-mia" — which means, "Everything is 100 percent," said police officer Bchir Ben Bchir. "So then why are they coming here? They're scared to talk."
Another Tunisian policeman, who refused to give his name, said that inscrutability is nothing new for their neighbors. "It's very difficult for us Tunisians to know the Libyans. That is their nature, and it is the nature of the regime," he said.
Amid reports of a weeks-long crackdown by Gadhafi's forces against opponents in western towns, the police officer worried that tragedies were quietly unfolding just a few miles away.
"There are no injured people coming over, no one with bullet wounds or anything," he said. "They die over there."
There were a few hints of chaos on the other side of the border. A taxi driver, ferrying three women in a gray minivan, suitcases strapped to the roof, said they'd seen an allied missile land near Zuwara, about 60 miles west of Tripoli, the capital, on Wednesday morning. As they sped past, he said, they could see flames in the rear-view mirror.
Migrant workers from African and Asian countries said they passed through dozens of makeshift checkpoints along the road to Ras Jedir. Soldiers and pro-Gadhafi militiamen terrorized travelers, they said, often stripping them of their cellphones and hundreds of dollars.
Tesfamichael Hagos, 30, from the East African nation of Eritrea, said Libyans were treated harshly at the checkpoints: Gunmen, many looking like teenagers, emptied their bags and interrogated some of them, although they usually were allowed to continue.
Hagos said that in recent days, Gadhafi's regime had armed scores of African migrants who were walking the streets of Tripoli. Riding in a shared taxi one day, he heard his Libyan fellow passengers refer to them as people from the West African nation of Niger, and accuse them of killing civilians.
"I'm afraid I'll lose my life there," Hagos said. But because he can't return to Eritrea — itself ruled by a tyrannical regime that would almost certainly imprison him for leaving the country illegally — he'll be confined for the foreseeable future to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Ras Jedir.
Some, however, were eager to speak in Gadhafi's favor. His decades-long but cruelly whimsical policy of welcoming African migrant workers — or expelling them, depending on his political orientation of the moment — had won him a supporter in Abdullahi Harouna, a translator at the Nigerian embassy in Tripoli.
"People from Egypt, Niger, all of Africa — it's in Libya that they can eat. The world is getting a false picture of Gadhafi," said Harouna, who left for Tunisia on "a personal mission."
An hour's drive away, in the Tunisian port town of Zarzis, two elderly Libyan men who'd come for medical checks said that 85 percent of their country supported Gadhafi. Both farmers in the countryside outside Zuwara, they said that government price supports had raised their income fivefold.
Ahmed Mohammed Salaam, 75, saw no contradiction in calling Libya the envy of North Africa while he'd to come to Tunisia to see a doctor.
"If God wills it, every other Arab leader will die," Salaam said, "and Gadhafi will still be standing."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011