March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
On an average day in the middle of the Sahara, where Tunisia meets Libya, a sparse scene includes a few wandering camels, some scrub brush, and some shepherds hidden beneath layers of scarves. Otherwise, there is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Today this remote border comes alive as a fleet of sleek but slightly damaged BMWs with the white Libyan license plate, race into Tunisia. These Libyans are not fleeing the growing battle inside their country, but merely trying to make some money by selling petrol on the roadside black market. They quickly dump plastic containers of the greenish fluid that is gold in this North African universe, get their money, and head on to the nearest town to buy the necessities that are no longer flowing to their war stunted economy.
As the Libyans pack up their luxury cars and sprint back to their homeland they kick up sand into the faces of another kind of exodus from the East, one that arrives on foot and does not intend to return to Libya. Tens of thousands of foreign laborers from across Africa and Asia are flooding into Tunisia. As they step across they hand over their passports and momentary future to the massive humanitarian industrial complex that has touched down in the desert. They are now migrants, or refugees, depending on the geopolitical status of their countries of origin. Fifteen thousand Bangladeshis can go home, although its debatable if they want to. Hundreds of Somalis on the other hand cannot go home, nor do they want to.
This army of lost souls drags the remnants of its most recent incarnations as guest workers in garbage bags and torn up suitcases. Settling in for a new life that could last days or maybe months, the mainly young men take the canvas of the barren landscape and create something new. A village of green and white United Nations tents spread west in an orderly fashion. New rows are created with every additional arrival from Libya, until the camp looks like an enormous game of dominoes.
Their days become a series of long lines. First a long line for food, a few times a day. The next lines are for the latrines, although many opt for disappearing into the cover of the sandstorms to take care of business. Lines form at the few spots around the camp where drinking water becomes available. And finally, a few days later, lines begin next to water for showering. Peoples’ struggles and frustrations are laid bare in this growing camp. Hunger fosters fights between strong Ghanaians and tiny Bangladeshis during the long wait for meals. Washing with jerry cans of water creates humility, as these migrants bathe in the middle of the camp where their frailties are on display.
While the necessities are provided, some of the most important elements of humanity are seemingly forgotten. Other than eat and sleep, what does one do with twenty-four hours a day in the middle of the desert? Aside from the wind and the generally few spoken words by these weary travelers, this massive humanitarian village is silent. There is no radio, no music, and no reminders for these men that there is more than waiting for a plane ticket to “home.”
A soccer ball appears, seemingly from heaven, and finally there is activity. Teams form and the healthy distraction of exercise and competition bring the first smiles to peoples faces. Next to the soccer field a local group of youth drag rusted oil drums and old wooden planks, and assemble them into a makeshift stage. Speakers and a microphone arrive, and by nightfall, the camp has its latest addition, an entertainment venue.
As the stars emerge over the Tunisian desert, a floodlight flashes on, and the screeching noise of feedback from a public address system shatters the normal camp silence. A few local Tunisian camp workers turn on some music in Arabic and begin to dance, jumping around the now forming crowd to get them interested. Music has broken the monotony of seemingly endless days here in the desert. The migrants come alive, and before long a Bangladeshi laborer takes the stage and belts out what sounds like a Bollywood hit. His fans, the fifteen thousand other Bangladeshis, scream in approval. Later, the Somalis take the stage en masse to perform a musical they have written about their escape from Libya. This impromptu live radio show may never be heard beyond a few hundred feet in the middle of what days before was nowhere, but tonight, it is the spark of humanity for thousands, and a reminder that they are more than bodies in a line, waiting in the desert for an uncertain dawn.