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Coming up for air

Libya, May 11, 2011

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To be honest, I spend too much time looking under the hood of a relief operation. Between the growing demands of program start-up, the maze of UN meetings and post-conflict issue debates, my days get eaten up pretty quickly. Yet when I do come up for air, there are plenty of interesting contrasts and more than a few moments of inspiration that are quite perspective enhancing.

Busting out to pizza and kebab joints every couple of nights, to get away from hotel life, one sees flat screen TVs with all day coverage of the war and the “Arab Awakening” as one network touts it (obviously media access is a positive new development). Gone for the moment is the endless stream of music videos but I trust they’ll be back in a furry when the new normal fades away (and this too will be positive).

There are the relatively modern and functioning amenities in Benghazi and a pace of life surprisingly orderly, only to be contrasted by armed pick up trucks periodically returning from the frontlines and spontaneous evening celebrations (you can tell by the gunshots and tracer bullets). There was my run along the waterfront one Friday evening, which is family time here, where I saw plenty of signs of a more normal life. However, even in the eastern part of the country life is anything but normal; people are hurting. Payment of salaries has been disrupted due to sanctions, schools have been closed for months, more chronic patients are being turned away by hospitals in order to serve the war wounded, families hosting IDPs have had to do more with less, and IDPs continually wonder how long must this go on. Under the surface it’s not just all about the euphoria of the revolution.

But there are more inspirational and uplifting moments as well. There are the almost daily peaceful marches at 5 p.m. passing by the Tibesty Hotel. It’s not arms bearing set that catches my attention, but rather the smaller groups of women and children bringing up the rear with more of a lightness and sense of fun. There are the teenage boys in civilian clothes directing traffic in the early afternoon when the power cuts out and the uniformed scouts cleaning streets every Friday afternoon. There is the springing up of ad hoc local charities to respond to emergency needs in a space where civil society didn’t exist before. And of course, there is the bustle of street life well into the night that doesn’t seem that exceptional to an outsider like me yet to a Libyan it is something quite exceptional given how things were for so long.

For those caught in the crossfire, however, there is a different view all together. The city of Ajdabiyah has been a ghost town for weeks and those just now venturing back must deal with the uncertainty of landmines and the fact that the frontline is still lingers just west of their homes. The nightmare which is Misrata plays out almost daily as more and more people clamor to leave yet have fewer options to do so. Just recently one of our Mercy Corps guys came back from a five-day mission there that took him ten days.

For these people, the ones seen on the flat screens, there is more fear than wonder I would imagine. While I am not sure how all of this will go down in the end, a prolonged quagmire is never good for the most exposed; the most vulnerable.

It is good to come up for air in this line of work, and it is necessary. Yet I have to admit I still don’t do it often enough.