As the conflict in Libya rages, with government and rebel forces attacking one another, desert nomads must flee their homes.
For countless generations the Bedouin, desert nomads in Libya, have lived as one large family, collective with their harsh environment. Now as the conflict in Libya rages, with government and rebel forces attacking one another with their machines of war, these people are forced to flee their homes. Their city of Ajdabiya is under siege and they seek safety in the desert, finding protection among their larger Bedouin family. The desert, or “sahara” as they call it, is expansive and brutal with its sandstorms and frigid nights – but fear of Qaddafi brings them here.
Our team is tasked with delivering medical care and basic supplies to nearly 50,000 people who are in great need but also fear being found because of the violence. We operate as a mobile light team, one day delivering care, the next conducting site surveys but always ready to move quickly if the fight comes closer.
It’s a funny satisfaction that the same people we are now assisting are those who taught me about this environment years ago. A decade has passed since I lived and learned from the Bedouin of southern Jordan. Three months every year for four years I learned to track, map, and live as a community to survive the desert – the exact skills that are useful to me and my fellow team members now. Today is different; we have GPS (though my sighting compass remains in my left, upper vest pocket), satellite phones, and an aid machine to back up needs. We move light and track the population; we respond heavy and try to meet their needs.
The day we arrived in the central settlement our quick situation assessment revealed over 20,000 conflict-displaced individuals had taken shelter in 250 homes previously inhabited by 1,500 members of the host population – the hosts are Bedouin and they voluntarily gave up their homes for their neighbors in need. Always longing for their traditional dwellings in the desert, the Bedouin have tolerated their more modern homes for the electricity and running water. The current events are a reason to pack their tents, free up their homes, and return to the desert. However, they don’t go far, remaining close in order to care for the displaced. They create a census of their homes, track the needs, and distribute goodwill materials to their people. They seek water from a local spring only they would know of, and tap into all of their resolve to meet the needs of their new neighbors. For decades these Bedouin were the true marginalized and vulnerable people. Now cut off from whatever little they previously received from the city, they do not complain and are resolute in caring for their people.
Our team would be remiss if we disturbed this collective action. Instead we offer assistance through the Bedouin system. We watch, study and understand their efforts, seeing agency arise within these politically powerless people and I am truly marveled by the success of their agrarian system. They will not ask for anything in return, this I’ve learned directly from them. Then it is up to us to take care of them.
Dr. Solomon Kuah is part of the Libya Emergency Response Team, International Medical Corps.