The Choucha refugee camp has seen its fair share of changes over the last seven months. The camp – which sprouted up on February 24th, shortly after the conflict in Libya erupted – has acutely felt the developments of the situation in Libya, as well as the tensions that result from caring for over 3,000 multi-ethnic escapees from Libya, which is certainly no small undertaking. Qaddafi may have escaped the country, but for a majority of Choucha’s inhabitants, that does not mean a return to Libya or to their original countries of origin. Instead, many have settled down for the long haul, and in this period of limbo, they are both reflecting on their past and present successes, as well as anticipating future challenges.
A Rocky Beginning
The Tunisian Red Cross, UNHCR, and Islamic Relief Worldwide were the first responders to the Libya crisis at Ras Jedir along the Tunisia-Libya border, and they essentially built the Choucha refugee camp from the ground-up on this isolated desert landscape. “Before, we just came here and 20,000 people were here, and we had just one distribution point for food…Then, people [wanted] to go home quickly, so [there were] quite a lot of problems,” commented Nanang Subana Dirja, Acting Head of Mission for Islamic Relief Worldwide, as he gave us a tour and recounted briefly the history of Choucha.
As Dirja expressed, the camp faced many difficulties from its inception, starting with the question of organization. In the beginning, admitted refugees were separated into two sectors: one for families, and one for individuals. After frictions developed between the diverse camp inhabitants, however, management decided to investigate a different organizational approach. The various clusters of NGOs running the camp – including the ICRC, Save the Children, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNHCR, the Tunisian Red Cross, and Islamic Relief Worldwide – decided to instead split the camp into six sectors. Now, admitted refugees are divided based on their original ethnicities, whether they are Eritrean, Somalian, Sudanese, Nigerian, Oromo, Iraqi, Palestinian, Pakistani, Ghanian, Malian, or otherwise. The common characteristic that they all share, however, is that they left the violence of their home countries in search of work in Libya before the war forced them to flee.
Reorganization of Choucha did much to ameliorate tensions, but naturally the camp continued to encounter problems. This past May, for example, refugees fed up with waiting and frustrated with being penned up within Choucha’s borders blocked the neighboring highway and burned areas of the camp.
Yet, on the whole, Choucha camp appears to be learning from past experiences, and conditions have improved for the refugees currently living there. According to Dirja, services are provided on time, and the camp is currently exceeding predetermined standards. Camp dwellers with whom we spoke affirmed these claims.
Although a majority of the refugees stay in Choucha for a period ranging between three and five months, there are also many who have been present in the camp since the beginning of the Libyan war, over seven months ago. Those occupying the camp for longer periods of time have settled in and have attempted to bring the comforts of home to Choucha. Satellite dishes adorn dozens of tents, and one refugee that we encountered was checking his Facebook page using an “Internet Everywhere” USB key— apparently “everywhere” extends to refugee camps in the middle of the desert.
As we wandered among the rows of tents, melodies of Lady Gaga blasted from some and mixed with regional music booming from others. Flags from all over the world dotted the landscape, and it was clear that the camp draws together a medley of inhabitants hailing from various walks of life. Some of the more artistic residents have used bottle caps to adorn the front areas of their tents with various designs, while others – evidently farmers – are growing small plots of wheat in front of their tents, using droppings from the camp’s goats as fertilizer. The green from their crops adds color to the bleak desert scene.
More business-oriented camp dwellers have set up small shops selling clothes and cigarettes along the highway, and a street-side café is the newest initiative of several enterprising refugees. For athletes, a soccer league has been established, with two matches held each day, culminating in a final championship reminiscent of the World Cup. During our visit, we witnessed the Sudanese team’s training session and were told that the long-awaited match between Nigeria and Sudan would take place that night. One refugee originally from Cote d’Ivoire informed us excitedly that he was rooting for Nigeria.
Thus, while there are certainly complaints about the standard of living in Choucha, especially from those accustomed to a more luxurious lifestyle in Libya, it appears that most refugees are there to stay – at least for the time being – as they anxiously await their fate.
Future Prospects: “No Man’s Land”
The prospects of the Ras Jedir Choucha camp and its inhabitants remain hazy, as the camp dwellers truly are between a rock and a hard place. Most fear returning to their original countries of origin because of persistent violence there. “I can’t go back to my home because they will kill me…they are bombing my people,” said one refugee with whom we spoke, an engineer from the mountains of Sudan. “I don’t have anything…Qaddafi took everything, even my passport and identity card,” said another, a 27 year-old, originally from Mali.
In addition, countless refugees are apprehensive about returning to their lives in Libya, where most would be regarded as mercenaries and killed. Thus, a majority live with the hope that countries in the West, in Europe or the U.S, will accept them. This desire was strikingly evident when Abdullah Mohamed showed us one of his prized accomplishments – a small area in front of his tent, in which he had grown wheat to spell out the message, “I love to live in the U.S.A.”
Yet, with fund limitations and numerous NGOs preparing to leave the camps shortly, Diraj anticipates difficult days ahead. “You can imagine, 3,000 people have to be provided with meals, three times a day…The UNHCR thinks that they will be here for more than 3 months, so more money is needed…” he commented.
Moreover, the camp’s relationship with local Tunisians is about to be tested, as Choucha needs to lay-off more than 50% of the local Tunisian workers it currently employs for the daily functioning of the camp. Excepting the “May incident” (in which the refugees’ blockade of the road disrupted the local economy), the camp’s relationship with the local population has remained a relatively healthy one. We watched as one Tunisian camp guard originally from the Ras Jedir area played a traditional Sudanese game in the sand with a Sudanese refugee. Beating the Sudanese resident at his own game, the Tunisian worker admitted to us, “He taught me well.”
Thus, as the camp’s multi-ethnic and multi-background inhabitants impatiently await the outcome of their situations, it is safe to say that their fates are intertwined with those of local Tunisians. More than just the fact that the Tunisian government has signed onto basic UN principles preventing sending the refugees to any location that will endanger their lives, it is clear that an integrative approach respecting the needs of both the camp inhabitants and the local Tunisian population must be taken when moving forward.