My first impressions in Libya

Libya, April 22, 2011

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As we handed him our passports, I was a little nervous. I spent the last two years in Iraq and Pakistan and was used to not necessarily being totally welcome as an American.

However, upon seeing the American passports, the young Libyan opposition member manning the border smiled and asked if we were journalists. When we responded that we were humanitarian workers, he filled out our paperwork on our behalf, gave us a Libya stamp in our passports and waved us through.

As the landscape turned from sandy and rocky to green fields and trees, I watched and wondered what awaited us in Benghazi, knowing Libya would be unlike any emergency response I had done before. We passed several checkpoints, each one staffed with opposition members smiling and waving us through upon hearing we were Americans. From the border at Salloum, Egypt most of the way to Benghazi, we were teased with glimpses of a very blue Mediterranean Sea, which made the trip feel more like a vacation than an emergency response to a conflict zone. Everything in the east was calm and sleepy towns welcomed us as we drove past men tending their flocks of sheep and goats in the countryside.

Life, for the most part, seems to be progressing fairly normally in Benghazi — yet there is evidence of the war. Several times we’ve driven past buildings that have been burned out and some that are bullet-ridden. But there are traffic police in the streets (apparently they are mostly volunteer), people are driving around, shops are open for business and restaurants are serving food.

The cool, blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea shine outside my hotel window, belying the situation continuing in western Libya. From the hotel balcony, I could see the ship on which two of my colleagues would travel to Misrata in order to assist with providing humanitarian aid to some of the third-country nationals stranded there. They also assisted the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in bringing around 1,000 of third-country nationals back to Benghazi where they will await transportation home. These Mercy Corps colleagues are currently in Misrata conducting assessments of the situation on the ground.

My first two days in Libya were mostly spent in meetings with United Nations agencies and Libyan charities. As I walked into a meeting with one Libyan organization, my spirits lifted immediately from the uncontained excitement in the room generated by dozens of youth busy at work.

In one room was a group of girls creating handicrafts in the Libyan opposition colors of red, black and green. They proudly displayed their prayer beads, ribbons and bracelets and gave us several as gifts. The organization sells the handicrafts to raise money for their activities, such as food and clothing distributions to tens of thousands of families in eastern Libya.

Together with the Libyan boy scouts and local religious leaders, this organization was able to put together a database of 55,000 families in need of assistance. In yet another room, a young woman described to us how the youth at their organization have come together to start their own newspaper/newsletter. Several youth were out on the streets talking to Libyans about their thoughts, feelings and opinions about the conflict for the third edition coming out this week. In a third room, I became a little choked up as I watched a group of youth, ranging from 11 to maybe 25 years of age, making documentaries and putting together slide shows of the conflict and its effect on their lives.

The excitement in the office was tangible and not isolated. This same feeling can be felt buzzing through the lobby of the hotel and in speaking with Libyans in restaurants and on the street. I am really looking forward to meeting and working with other equally impressive local organizations in the weeks to come here in Libya.