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Libyan families tell of unfolding nightmare

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International Crisis Researcher

Benghazi, Libya, 18 March 2011

Yesterday, I managed to speak by phone to a family that I met last week when I was in Ajdabya, a town about 160km west of Benghazi which has been pounded by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s military forces in recent days. The offensive was still continuing, the phone networks had been down and it had been impossible to reach anyone in the town.

The family told me they were sheltering in the desert about 40km east of Ajdabya. They were very distressed and very scared. They said there had been heavy shelling and bombing by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, and that they did not know whether their home was still standing.

They said that they had seen bodies of people lying in the streets as they fled the town.

I heard the same from other families who had fled. I have had no way to independently verify these accounts, though they are certainly compelling. Nor is it possible to know whether the bodies were those of fighters opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi or of residents who had been killed although they were not involved in any fighting.

I had first met the family now sheltering in the desert two weeks ago. I came across them in one of Benghazi’s hospitals, where their 17-year-old son, Yousef, in his last year of secondary school, was receiving medical care.
Yousef had been shot in the head by Colonel al-Gaddafi's security forces in the centre of Ajdabya at around 4.30pm on the afternoon of 17 February, the first day on which  demonstrations calling for civil liberties, political reforms and democracy were held in many towns throughout Libya, inspired no doubt by recent popular protests in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.

The hospital doctor who was treating Yousef explained:

“The bullet went through from the back of his head, on the right side, just above the ear and exited at the front of the head.  He was very lucky in so far as the bullet travelled just above the brain stem; had the bullet gone in even just millimetres deeper he would have likely not survived.  The injury itself has healed well, however, the wound was in a very delicate/sensitive area, and there remain psychological symptoms; he is delusional and cannot sleep.  We don’t yet know how he will recover”.

Yousef’s father, understandably, was beside himself with worry about his son’s condition:

“He was in his last year at high school and was doing very well in his studies; now he is in a very bad shape; he is delusional and is unable to sleep.  I don’t know if he will recover. What does the future hold for him?  I don’t know what can be done to cure him. Perhaps if it was possible to send him abroad to a place where there is more sophisticated treatment available that could help, but I don’t have the means to do so.”

I also met another family yesterday who had fled from their home in Besher, a small village some 12-15 km west of al-Breiqa, two days earlier.

In the past week, the areas in and around Al-Breiqa, which is located some 40 km west of Ajdabya, and Ras al-Anouf, about another 100 km  further west, have been the scene of intense fighting between the advancing forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi and those who have taken up arms to oppose him.

Most residents of these areas have been forced to abandon their homes and seek shelter elsewhere.

Some, who managed to reach Benghazi, are now staying with friends or relatives or are sheltering temporarily in a centre managed by the Libyan branch of the Red Crescent society.

Many others are sheltering in the desert west of Ajdabya.

This family from Besher village also said they had seen bodies lying in the streets but it was impossible to get to them safely because of constant shelling.

Now, after local telephone networks went down yesterday afternoon it is impossible to contact the doctors at Ajdabya hospital in order to get up to date information on what is happening there, the scale of casualties, and how they are coping as this nightmare unfolds, or, indeed, to get information from anyone else there.

The only way to communicate right now is by satellite phone, which is not an option available to other than a very few people.