Our emergency team members have accompanied two boatloads of vital food and medical personnel originating from eastern Libya. They've been helping coordinate the evacuation of residents trapped by escalating fighting.
Mercy Corps' Fadl Moukadem has made two crossings between Benghazi and Misrata in the last two days. These are excerpts of his account of the first trip:
We set sail just past midnight on April 14. The purpose of the trip was to deliver humanitarian aid to the people under siege in Misrata and to evacuate refugees -- known as "third-country nationals," or TCNs -- who were living in very precarious and risky situations.
On this mission, I was charged of coordinating the work of the medical team which was comprised of three Libyan Red Crescent volunteers and three doctors. However, in the end, we all did what needed to be done at any given time.
In addition, Mercy Corps coordinated with its partner organization, The Libyan Appeal Team, to bring on the ship 104 tons in food items. Supplies were donated from many other sources. As they loaded the food on board, volunteers started singing patriotic songs and clapping their hands. As a final touch they wrote messages of hope and support to the people in Misrata on each of the containers.
The trip took about 14 hours. The sea was relatively calm and there was plenty of space for the passengers heading to Misrata. In addition to International Organization of Migration (IOM) staff, there were representatives from the Libyan Red Crescent, Benghazi Hospital, the Libyan Appeal Team, and some journalists. The crew was made up of Romanians, Greeks and Egyptians.
On the morning the day we set sail there were heavy government attacks on Misrata. As we approached the port many hours later, we saw a Turkish vessel waiting outside the port, and NATO ships patrolling the sea. It was pretty tense and many of the crew were frightened. The captain communicated with NATO and while there hadn’t been attacks for awhile, the decision to proceed to the port was ours. We then approached the port.
Upon arrival we had expected to see a large number of refugees cueing up, as well as emergency vehicles with medical evacuation cases ready to move. But the port was relatively empty. It was later learned that there was some miscommunication and the refugees were still at various camps.
I then got into a pick-up with a driver, the IOM coordinator, a photographer and a couple of Red Crescent volunteers and sped off quickly to view some of the damages and to locate the camps. It was a trip about 20 minutes, but we saw plenty of bombed out sheds and vehicles along the way to the camp. The camp was more of a spontaneous settlement lined up along a stretch road. There were not many tents; mainly people were using blankets to create some sense of shelter.
In all approximately 1,200 refugees were brought on board plus a couple dozen Libyans with families. The refugees came from Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria, Lebanon and Morocco. The Bangladeshis (Bengalis) and Egyptians were the largest groups.
As the people boarded many dropped to the ground to pray in gratitude. At first people didn’t care where they were going – they just wanted out. After a time, however, anxiety levels rose and it was decided that a general announcement needed to be made. The announcement started with “The IOM, Mercy Corps and Libyan Red Cross welcomes you to the ship!” It then went on to say that upon arrival in Benghazi the group would be taken to a camp where they would spend one or two nights and then taken across the Egyptian border. The Egyptians would then move on to their home cities and towns and the others would be flown to their home countries. Many of the Bengalis could not understand the message so we were able to find a translator to speak to them. In the darkness of the night I could then see the flashing of teeth as they smiled with relief.
The seas were a lot rougher on the return trip and many suffered sea sickness. On top of that was the stench resulting from so many people in such close quarters which made for the passing of many difficult hours.
By the time we pulled into the port it was 8:00 p.m. April 15. While there was a sense of relief, the stronger emotion was the need to get off the ship as fast as possible. Buses were provided to move people to the next stage of their journey home.
It took almost three hours to fully disembark yet even before I left the port for my hotel. I was already talking with IOM and the Mercy Corps team about my return trip to Misrata the very next day.