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17.04.2019 Libya

Fear, Uncertainty Haunt Shelter Near Libya Front Line

Nawas al-Darragi
A Libyan fighter from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord fires a machinegun during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara on April 10, 2019.  By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File)
APR 17, 2019 LIBYA
A Libyan fighter from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord fires a machinegun during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara on April 10, 2019. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP/File)

Sadness and fear are etched into the faces of those lining up for food near the front line of fighting that is raging on the outskirts of Libya's capital.

One of those who have sought refuge in a district town hall is Fatma al-Naami, a 49-year-old widow who just lost her only child when her house was bombed.

"My son died because of this dirty war," she says, unable to contain her tears as she recounts how he was hit by shrapnel and died of his injuries two days later.

"I feel I can't go on alone... I feel like the living dead," says Naami, who lost her husband to illness.

Not far from her, in the small garden of the Ain Zara town hall, a group of children seem to have kept their carefree spirit.

Twelve-year-old Mahmoud is playing with his new friends who have also escaped the fighting south of the vast suburb dotted with farms.

Together with his parents, he had to hastily abandon his home in nearby Al-Keheli amid the fighting that has raged for nearly two weeks.

They are among the latest victims of violence in the North African country that has been plunged into chaos since NATO-backed forces overthrew former dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Violent clashes

Since April 4, gunfire and explosions have rocked the southern outskirts of Tripoli, amid an attack from strongman Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

Displaced Libyans collect food aid on April 17, 2019 at a school turned into a shelter on the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP) Displaced Libyans collect food aid on April 17, 2019 at a school turned into a shelter on the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP)

Pushing back against his offensive are forces of the internationally recognised Government of National Unity (GNA) headquartered in the capital.

Some of the most violent fighting has shaken the suburbs of Ain Zara, about 10 kilometres (six miles) south of central Tripoli, an area where creeping urbanisation has nibbled away at farmlands.

A total of 189 people have been killed and more than 800 wounded in the clashes, many of them civilians, according to the World Health Organization.

More than 18,000 internally displaced people -- 7,000 of them from Ain Zara -- have had to seek refuge with relatives or in shelters, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"I left home a week ago with my wife and son Mohamad," one of them, Abdessalam, told AFP. "The fighting became so violent that we didn't sleep for days."

Abdessalam said he was "lucky" to have found refuge in a university residence near the town hall.

"Other large families sometimes crowd seven people into a room," he explained.

'Children suffer trauma'

Faced with the influx of displaced people, Ain Zara town hall has set up a crisis committee, a food bank and a makeshift pharmacy to manage donations of food and medicines.

"We collect donations for the displaced, to whom we distribute more than 1,500 family food baskets every day," Ain Zara mayor Abdul Wahed Ballug told AFP.

At least 189 people have been killed and more than 18,000 displaced since Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar ordered his forces to march on Tripoli on April 4, according to the WHO. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP) At least 189 people have been killed and more than 18,000 displaced since Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar ordered his forces to march on Tripoli on April 4, according to the WHO. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP)

"We have made the university residence available to them," he said, adding with regret that it can accommodate no more than 500 people.

Ballug deplored what he said was a lack of assistance from local and international organisations.

"Is it conceivable that an international organisation gives us 10 mattresses and a few products and then announces that it has helped us?" he said.

Nor was there any state assistance, Ballug said, pointing out that "only businessmen and traders came to the rescue of the displaced".

Beyond humanitarian aid, those who have fled need psychological help, said Intissar al-Gleb, a member of the crisis committee.

"Children have suffered trauma. They need psychological support from specialists to help them," she said.

Meanwhile, security fears persist for those who have fled as the front line keeps shifting.

Gleb said "everything is going well so far despite the lack of government and international support to meet the growing humanitarian demand".

She added however that, as the LNA is pushing on with its offensive, "we have emergency evacuation plans if necessary".

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