Tunisian border town cannot escape Libya's turmoil
By Kate Thomas Mar 19, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Ben Gardane, Tunisia - On the outskirts of Ben Gardane, a small Tunisian town 30 kilometres from the Libyan border, shops and warehouses are piled high with mattresses, rugs, tracksuits and dresses.
Money-changing bureaux line the streets, their blue walls as cracked and weathered as the sun-beaten skin of the men who manage them. A stray dog with a missing leg lopes past. At first glance, Ben Gardane could be any frontier town, anywhere in the world.
But beyond the run-down souq and the bling of the jewellery shops, the road winds out of town towards the border post, where the crimson flag of Tunisia meets flagpoles draped in green.
They are a reminder that just a few metres from here, Libya is grappling with the UN Security Council's decision to back a no-fly zone and 'all necessary measures' short of invading the country.
Thursday's Security Council was met with scepticism in Ben Gardane. While cheering and celebratory gunfire lit the streets of Benghazi - the Libyan rebel stronghold - the atmosphere in Ben Gardane remained tense.
'Here in Ben Gardane, we feel solidarity with people in western Libya,' said Ahmed. 'We had our revolution and now we hope that they can have theirs,' he said.
But the residents of Ben Gardane, too, are struggling. Representatives from Ben Gardane's local council estimate that until a month ago, 80 per cent of the town's population made a living from cross-border trade with Libya.
But now, prices on the Libyan side have increased, access is deeply limited and, for those Tunisians who do manage to cross the border, Libyan security patrols seem to be upping the penalties for smuggling.
'We hear stories,' said Mohammed Fariq, a 35-year-old resident of Ben Gardane who used to buy electronic equipment from Tripoli. 'It was never easy to do this work. We would often get stopped by security officials and have to pay bribes. But now the situation is much, much worse. We are afraid of being in Libya now.'
Fariq is not the only one.
Every night about 2,500 migrant workers and refugees arrive at the border from Libya, desperate to make it to the Choucha transit centre.
For days now the pattern has been the same: after a long journey blighted by stops at security checkpoints, they are finally allowed to cross into Tunisia at around midnight. The following morning, they are bussed to the camp, which, despite ongoing repatriation efforts, still house around 17,000 people.
Firas Kayal, the UN High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) public information officer at Choucha, said the camp's population could swell.
'We are not present on the other side, so it is hard for us to estimate who we will be receiving over the coming days and weeks,' he said. 'We still believe that only 15-20 percent of Libya's migrant workers have left the country.'
But, in the midst of the humanitarian crisis at Choucha, residents of Ben Gardane say they are being forgotten.
'What do I do now, now that I have lost so much of my income?' said Rabia Ahmed, 24, who works with his father importing mattresses and fabric from Libya.
Ahmed, who has two young children, is still able to rely on Libyan business contacts who bring some goods to Ben Gardane. But he is earning one quarter of his previous monthly earnings.
Frustrated by a loss of earnings and the sight of aid agency vehicles streaming through the town towards Choucha, he joined a protest Thursday.
Angry residents of Ben Gardane threw stones at NGO cars, including those belonging to the ACT Alliance, an umbrella group of 111 church- related humanitarian assistance organizations. Some journalists were also targeted.
It was not the first time that frustrations reached boiling point in Ben Gardane. On August 13 last year, while many Tunisians were preparing to begin the Muslim month of Ramadan, border closures imposed by Tunisian security forces sparked anti-government demonstrations. Two cars and dozens of tyres were burnt in protest.
Ahmed is proud to have taken part. 'The protests began because border guards began charging us 150 dinars (the equivalent of one month's salary) to cross into Libya,' he said. 'Many people in Ben Gardane believe Tunisia's revolution began here,' he said.
This week in Tunis, Hillary Clinton pledged to push for 20 million dollars for Tunisia ahead of elections scheduled for July. But Tunisia's unemployment rate is still 14 percent and two months after former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power, hopes for the future are beginning to fall.
A solid plan for Ben Gardane, this dusty little town that straddles the spot where Libya bleeds into Tunisia, could make all the difference.
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