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Refugees are pouring out of Libya. Many of those who have made it across the border to Tunisia are too scared to talk, with reports that some may be African mercenaries.

By Monica Fahmy

RAS JEDIR - The steady stream of people fleeing Libya is creating a whole new crisis for Tunisia. In the eastern border town of Ras Jedir, the mood grew decidedly more tense over the weekend. Border entry officers are curt, telling refugees to hurry up. Women and children are brusquely pushed aside, and the ground is littered with empty water bottles, cracker wrappers, and juice boxes. On top of the garbage piles, people make seats out of their belongings and sit waiting for the next leg of their trip.

"Every day, there are more and more people coming from Libya," says Tamara Qaraien, coordinator for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid office. Between midnight on Saturday and Sunday morning at 8:00 AM, more than 6,000 people crossed the border, according to figures obtained from the Tunisian military. In the 24 hours before that, more than 13,000 refugees came from Libya: 9,371 Egyptians, 1,338 Chinese, 455 Tunisians, 336 Libyans, and 109 Moroccans and other nationalities.

On Sunday, many more women and children came across the border than in previous days, observed Qaraien. She is particularly worried about the sanitary conditions in the refugee camp near Ras Jedir. "Until yesterday there was no problem, but now there are simply too many refugees," she says. In cooperation with other humanitarian organizations, she is now redoubling her efforts in order to help these people continue along their journeys.

She explains that some people are actually afraid to talk, even to international aid agencies. "One person was about to tell me his story, but he was stopped by others. ‘Be quiet," they said, ‘you'll endanger everyone else."" To obtain secure information from Libya is virtually impossible, she says, and aid organizations are not allowed to enter the country. "We have not yet received permission," explains Qaraien.

African mercenaries?

At the border checkpoint, the flow of refugees comes to a sudden halt, and an uproar ensues. On the Libyan side, some travelers are pushing other people forward. From a military representative, we hear that African mercenaries are being dropped off by helicopters near the Tunisian border. The sub-Saharan Africans are now trying to come across, which concerns the Tunisian military. They do not want more black Africans to cross the border, and are considering using force to guard the checkpoint.

Murat Bayraktar, coordinator for the Turkish aid organization Insani Yardim Vakfi, offers another explanation for the commotion: "We wanted to bring food to the people on the other side of the border. The soldiers said, ‘Don't do it, or we will shoot at you."" He explains that there are thousands of refugees waiting on the other side, who are growing increasingly hungry. Unlike in Tunisia, Gaddafi's people are not distributing any food to travelers. Bayraktar appeals to the international community, "Tunisia needs help now in order to cope with this situation."

Help is on the way. On Saturday evening, a Boeing 747 full of supplies for 10,000 people landed in Tunisia, says Firas Kayal, spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Blankets, 2000 tents, plastic materials and cooking sets are now available at the Djerba airport. "We are consulting with the Tunisian army and the Red Crescent, in order to decide where we will set up the tents tomorrow," he explains. Though the UN is focused on the Tunisia-Libya border, it is not a given that the country will be able to keep its borders open to all refugees.

Even if the border remains open, people will still face long waits in order to cross it. They cannot all enter at once - room and board must first be coordinated. Tiziano Rodari and Massimo Ancheschi, two Italians who worked in Libya for the Italian oil company Eni, waited for 24 hours before they could leave Libya. On Saturday evening, they spoke of the chaos they had seen in Tripoli: "A friend of mine who works in a hospital told me that they were accepting up to thirty dead bodies per day," says Rodari. Italians trying to leave Libya will now have to try their luck on the road. Alitalia has cancelled all flights leaving Tripoli.

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