Rebels In Libya's Western Mountains Face Shortages

July 12, 2011

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro

Rebels in the Nafusah Mountaiins of western Libya have made substantial gains in recent weeks against forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. But the fighting has prompted a growing humanitarian crisis in this isolated region southwest of Tripoli.

A fighter on the frontline of a recent battle in the western mountains points at a rusted rifle. "This one very old, more than 100 years," he says. "Our grandfathers before us use it in front of Italian army in 1911."

Fighting across Libya has been characterized by a lack of sophisticated weapons. But ask Col. Juma Ibrahim, a senior commander of the military council in Zintan, what he needs most, and it's not guns.

"Water, fuel, food, shoes, clothes, many things," Ibrahim responds.

In Zintan and across the western mountains, there is an acute shortage of everything. The only way to bring supplies in is through the border with Tunisia, which until recently was rocketed daily by Ghadafi's army. Government forces are still trying to take it back, and if they do, the mountains will be cut off.

Most supplies now come in on the back of pick ups and in the trunks of cars — a trickle of items supplying a population in the tens of thousands.

Those cars park outside the main mosque in Zintan — a few every day with the drivers selling whatever they've managed to bring across.

Men crowd around a cluster of lambs ready for the slaughter. Fresh meat is hard to come by and the bidding is fast and furious. Two of the young ones are going for 200 dinars about $130, a fortune in a place where no one has worked for months

Abdul Hamid Mohammed Mehdi is looking for fresh meat. He does odd jobs he says to make money and then takes that cash straight to the market to buy whatever food he can find.

Apart from the lamb-seller, there is only one other merchant and he's selling a few vegetables, which are worse for wear after their journey over the mountains in the boiling heat. The tomatoes are mostly rotten, and there is only a small cache of fresh fruit.

Mohammed says his family mostly survives on pasta and other dried or canned foodstuffs. A typical dinner he says is rice, and if they are lucky some watermelon.

But he doesn't buy the pasta and rice in a shop because most are shuttered. The World Food Program and other humanitarian groups are providing food aid. But it simply isn't enough.

At a warehouse on the edge of town, workers load bundles on the back of a large flatbed truck.

Mohammed used to work at an oil company but now he's coordinating food distribution. He lists what he has in stock: macaroni, oil, tomato sauce.

As supplies come in, they get sent out into the neighborhoods, and what they get, depends on the size of the family.

The deliveries of aid though aren't regular Mohammed says. Sometimes nothing comes in for weeks, and what they get is potluck.

The problem he says is that there are too many mouths to feed. Zintan has become a hub: fighters are congregating here, as are refugees from other areas, plus the local population already in residence.

"We are suffering from an extremely serious food crisis here," Mohammed says.

Drinking water is also in short supply in many areas, as is medicine.

At a pharmacy in Zintan a man walks in and asks for a Panadol, a brand of painkiller.

Pharmacist Masoud Abdul Salaam says he doesn't have any. He doesn't have what the next few customers ask for either.

He says he hasn't been able to get stocks in since the uprising began; he's just selling whatever he has left. People with serious illnesses he says — diabetes, high blood pressure – aren't finding the medication they need. We have nothing Masoud adds.

And the pumps aren't working either. Fuel is also brought in on the back of pick up trucks — in large 100 liter plastic containers.

It's sold for 50 dinars for 20 liters – that's a 10 fold price increase since the rebellion began. As a result most people can't afford to use their cars.

Mohammed Barka, a fuel seller, says he goes to get the gas in Tunisia. But sometimes he has to wait for days to fill up because there's no fuel in the border town at the other end.

When he finally gets what he needs, he has to make the treacherous border crossing back with what he says is a mobile bomb. He's constantly terrified that the car will explode.

But at least we can bring in some supplies, he says. If the border gets closed off, we will all die.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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