Libya: What Few People Witness

03/24/2011 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is said that people during times of conflict vote with their feet. As such, monitoring the movement of people is often a good barometer of the nature of that conflict. However, the images of people fleeing Libya into Egypt and Tunisia do not show us the whole story of the war that is unfolding.

I have spent the past two weeks visiting these three countries to assess the immediate needs of those fleeing the violence in Libya. To the outside world, the first indicator of the level of violence being unleashed on civilians by Colonel Gaddafi's regime was the large-scale exodus of people across the borders into Tunisia and Egypt. More than 300,000 people have fled across these two borders in the past month. The majority of these are migrant workers -- from countries as diverse as Egypt, Pakistan and the Philippines -- who need flights back to their countries. Others are from sub-Saharan African countries who need protection from intimidation and attacks, as they have been mistakenly identified as mercenaries or are victims of racist and thuggish behavior. Many of them now have no home to return to.

When Col. Gaddafi's forces began to approach and then bombard Benghazi, the numbers of Libyans crossing Libya's eastern border into Egypt more than doubled. Yet, this spike ended almost immediately after the first coalition airstrikes began -- a result of an extraordinary United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing intervention for the protection of civilians.

However, few people in the West are witnessing the drama facing people inside Libya right now. During my visit this week to Tobruk, an opposition-controlled city in eastern Libya, all the people I met unambiguously stated that they believed the coalition airstrikes had saved their lives. They also expressed hope that the coalition bombing campaign be sustained. They fear that without it, they could face the devastation currently being unleashed by government forces on people in other parts of the country.

This fear is not surprising when one recalls the incendiary terms used by Col. Gaddafi when he announced his campaign against the opposition. He referred to the revolutionary forces as "cockroaches," a term made famous when used by the Hutu Interahamwe during the Rwandan genocide. Col. Gaddafi made it clear that he would show "no mercy" in dealing with those who had opposed him.

As the coalition airstrikes continue, international aid agencies have been unable to access Libyans under fire in cities like Adjabiya, Misrata and Zawiya. There, civilians are suffering the full blow of the government onslaught. Hospitals are not spared the shelling, and there are persistent rumors of atrocities and systematic violations of all tenets of humanitarian law by Gaddafi's forces. No one knows how many people are fleeing inside Libya, where they are going, or what their needs are.

In Tobruk, we met with families who had fled from Ajdabiya. For the time being, local volunteers have provided food and shelter to these displaced families, and even opened the doors of their own homes. A combination of traditional Arab hospitality and revolutionary fervor has prompted this outpouring of community spirit.

This spirit must be supported if people continue to flee into urban areas. Under these circumstances, a traditional camp model of humanitarian assistance will not work. While the international community has shown a sincere commitment to protect civilians in Libya, the next step is to ensure that all displaced Libyans can access food, shelter and medical assistance. Establishing an urban assistance program for Libyans uprooted inside their own country -- as well as for any Libyans who might flee to cities in Egypt and Tunisia -- will be key.

As we continue to watch the news from Libya, these are the people who are far from the television cameras. They are also the ones who will continue to need our assistance as the conflict goes on.

Michel Gabaudan is President of Refugees International, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization that receives no government or UN funding.