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The Lives They Leave Behind

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"My father didn't even recognize me," Abdel Wahed, 32, told me when I interviewed him in a hospital in southern Tunisia in late April. His entire face was blackened with serious burns from what he believed was a Grad rocket launched by Gaddafi forces that landed just outside his home in Zintan, in the Nafusa mountains of western Libya. Abdel Wahed is lucky to be alive: four of his relatives -- three older men and a woman in her '50s -- were killed in the attack on April 24.

Abdel Wahed was in the Zintan Hospital for three days, but at around 6:30 a.m. on April 27, another Gaddafi munition landed right outside the hospital. His brother helped him escape by car to Tunisia, bringing along a wounded elderly man and a 2 ½-year-old girl with head wounds from shrapnel from the same blast.

It is not only the injured who have fled to Tunisia from the Nafusa Mountains. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, from the beginning of the armed conflict in mid-February up to May 9, almost 50,000 Libyans had fled to Tunisia via the nearby Dehiba border crossing. Others have crossed unofficially along smuggler routes.

I interviewed dozens of refugees from the Nafusa Mountains in late April and early May in Tunisian refugee camps, hospitals, and homes. The refugees described how Gaddafi troops encircled the towns of Nalut, Takut and Zintan, cut civilians off from food, medicine, and fuel supplies, and denied them access to their farms.

The refugees also gave consistent and credible accounts of what they believed were Grad rockets hitting civilian sites -- homes, mosques, water facilities, a school, hospital compounds. The Soviet-designed Grad, with a range of 4 to 40 kilometers, is inherently indiscriminate when fired in civilian areas because it lacks a guidance system. It should never be fired into areas where civilians live.

Leila P. from Nalut, a large town inhabited mostly by ethnic Amazigh (Berbers), told me, "On Sunday [April 24], at 10:14 p.m., [what she believed was] a Grad rocket hit the homes in our neighborhood [Belhita]. The children were horrified, we were shaken up, and the next day early in the morning we left for Tunisia." Leila said she had no knowledge of pro-democracy forces operating in her neighborhood.

Families from Nalut and Takut who own plots of land on the outskirts of town said that Gaddafi forces had burned their crops and olive groves and had eaten or killed their sheep and goats. Others said their livestock died from dehydration because the farmers could not reach their farms when soldiers encircled their towns. Samir D., a farmer with sheep on the outskirts of Nalut, said, "They were killing everything, the troops. They kept some [sheep] to eat, and they killed the rest. They shot them.... I saw the dead sheep."

The tens of thousands of people from the Nafusa Mountains who escaped the violence back home are glad to be out of harm's way, at least for now. And they are extraordinarily grateful for the hospitality and compassion they are finding in Tunisia. But they still have plenty of anxieties.

A 45-year-old woman I met in a private home in Tataouine told me that some Libyan refugees who fled the violence are receiving threats from Gaddafi supporters. She told me that a woman came to the house one day and asked questions about where the family was from. The woman told the refugees that her relative is a fighter with Gaddafi back in Libya. "They [supporters of the regime] said they will come to find us and abduct our children," the woman told me.

This fear was reiterated by other refugees I met in the Dehiba Camp. They said that some families who had been taken into private homes returned to the camp because they found it to be safer.

But the fear for the future is the worst. These people's lives and livelihoods have been wiped out. They never thought they would be fleeing to save their lives, and it probably never crossed their minds that one day they would be refugees in a neighboring country, uncertain if they would ever be able to return home. The sadness of leaving one's home and country, losing family, and the distress about the future was vivid on the face of every refugee I met.

On my last day in Tunisia, I visited a group of elderly women from Nalut in their tent in a refugee camp. They began to cry. One said, "We left our homes, we left our loved ones behind.

This post is reprinted from Libyan TV.

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