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Anticipating needs in rapidly-changing Libya

Libya, March 7, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, is very festive on the outside. People are out and about. Children have the flag painted on their cheeks, and everyone is carrying flags. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I arrived in Benghazi with the Mercy Corps team six days ago to begin a humanitarian assessment and identify how we can assist the people. Benghazi is Libya's second-largest city, with a population of about 6.5 million people. The opposition ousted Gaddafi's local government more than a week ago after days of fighting.

I was surprised to find that now the city is really very festive on the outside. People are out and about — parents strolling along the promenade with their children. Children have the flag painted on their cheeks, and everyone carries the flag of the opposition Feb 17 Libyan Youth Movement. It has the feeling that they just won the Super Bowl here.

The people are proud, excited and filled with adrenalin — but at the same time you also sense a deep-seated fear of what may happen tomorrow. Will Gaddafi's forces try to retake the area? Will there be airstrikes on the city? How long will the fighting continue? How will this all end? So, there is euphoria and fear all mixed together that is unsettling.

The major issues that the Mercy Corps team has been working on are to understand what the humanitarian needs are and to develop plans to respond, as needed.

Since the uprising, the system has crumbled and this is slowly taking its toll. Right now, there is food available in the markets and the food warehouses (that were formerly run by the Gaddafi government) have supplies that they say should last a couple months. However, if the situation is not resolved and the supply lines of food from the central source in Tripoli are not re-opened, food availability could become a major issue and would affect the poor and the most vulnerable first — and very drastically. At least 75 percent of Libya’s foodstuffs are imported, so opening the supply lines is crucial. The prices of food have already doubled for many items. The Libyan currency has also dropped in value, making food purchases difficult for low-income and poor people.

Access to petrol in the coming weeks, should the violence continue, is a concern: the sanitation and water system is powered by petrol, so if the petrol runs out the water and sanitation systems may be shut down as well.

Outside of Benghazi, in areas just 30 minute away by car, there are airstrikes on ammunition warehouses and military targets. The fighting continues just beyond this city, a place that is simultaneously celebrating and wondering what tomorrow may bring.

Western Libya remains the center of concern. The international humanitarian community has called for immediate and safe access to the area, so organizations can provide aid unhindered and in safety. The Mercy Corps team is trying to find a way to access the area to see if we can assist, but at this time the fighting is too intense.