By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher
As fighting continues between forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi and those opposed to his rule for control of the strategic oil-rich region west of Ajdabiya, yet more families are being displaced by the conflict. Evidence that al-Gaddafi’s forces have laid anti-personnel mines – which are internationally banned on account of the grave danger they pose to civilians – beside the main road on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, not just anti-tank mines, has heightened concern for the safety of local residents and people travelling in the area.
The anti-personnel mines were discovered only by chance when an electricity company truck drove over and detonated two of the mines on the morning of 28 March, just two days after Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces had been forced to retreat from the area.
‘AbdelMina’ im al-Shanty, the company’s operations director for eastern Libya, told me that electricity supply workers had been dispatched to the area to repair power lines damaged during the two-week siege of the town. Fortunately, no one was injured in the blast, thanks to the sturdiness of the truck, but if any of the workers had stepped on the mines they would almost certainly have lost limbs or worse. Anti-personnel mines are banned internationally and must not be used anywhere or under any circumstances. That these anti-personnel lines were planted close to a significant population centre and in area of frequent passage is even more reprehensible.
Army officers opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi who are now involved in trying to clear the area of these mines have told me that they were laid in neat rows, buried in the sand between the line of electricity pylons and the tarmac road, only meters off the main road running eastwards from Ajdabiya to Benghazi and a few hundreds meters outside Ajdabiya’s eastern gate. This is the main route between Benghazi and Ajdabiya and to the western half of Libya.
Opposition colonels Abdel Jawad and Mahjoub told me that they were not familiar with anti-personnel mines and that all those that had been found have now been destroyed. Another soldier showed me the disposal operation, which he had filmed on his mobile phone. The danger presented by this particular set of anti-personnel mines has now been averted but their deployment close to Ajdabiya obviously raises the question whether such mines have also been laid elsewhere by Colonel al-Gaddafis forces. If so, they will pose a significant additional risk to local residents and others who are fleeing the conflict and, later, to those who subsequently try to return to their homes once the fighting has come to an end.
For now, while the conflict continues, experts are unlikely to be able to gain ready access to the area in order to assess the scale of the problem and help reduce the possible risks, and the opposition fighters generally lack the know-how and experience to do it even for themselves – all of which leaves residents and people moving about in the areas directly affected by conflict with yet another potential danger lurking over them.
The oil town of Breiqa, located about 220km west of Benghazi, has been at the centre of the fighting in recent weeks and is now virtually emptied of its inhabitants. For a time, a few of the town’s residents remained, mostly locked down in their homes and cut off from the rest of the world, but even these have now left. One such family that I spoke to yesterday told me that they will not go back to their homes in Breiqa while forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi continue to remain in and control Sirte, several hundred kilometres to the west, because of the danger they are seen to present to Breiqa and other towns between Sirte and Benghazi.
Judging by the way the fighting has been going, it seems unlikely that this family and others can expect to be able to return to their homes any time soon. One has almost lost count of the number of times that control of Breiqa and the area around it has changed hands in the last few weeks in the fighting between pro and anti-al-Gaddafi forces.
While this pattern remains unchanged, with forces loyal to the Colonel al-Gaddafi forces and opposition fighters each, in turn, advancing and retreating from Breiqa and its surroundings, the displaced residents have little prospect of being able to return to their homes and a sense of normality once again. One person told me:
Most of the time we don’t know who controls the town and we cannot trust anyone. We fear that each side may suppose that we support the other side, those against whom they are fighting. Every time al-Gaddafi’s soldiers come back there is yet more fighting. It has become far too dangerous to remain although we were also very frightened to take to the road and escape from the town with so much fighting going on around us.
Such fears were certainly justified, as people were shot at and killed and injured by the Libyan leader’s forces while they were fleeing from the area of conflict. Even the city of Ajdabiya, which is further away from the present frontline and which has now been back under the control of those fighting against Colonel al-Gaddafi for the past 12 days or so remains largely empty of its residents as people are still too wary and anxious to return.
Some of the people who have been displaced from the area of fighting have found shelter with relatives and friends in towns and villages further east along the Libyan coast, as far east as Tobruk, while others are staying with strangers who generously opened up their homes to them in their hour of need. Driving between Ajdabiya and Benghazi during the past few days I saw several people standing by the roadside holding up large notices on which they had written: “hospitality offered to families from Ajdabiya”.
Then, yesterday, when I was in al-Bayda, between Benghazi and Tobruk, I met a family who told me that they had been forced to flee from their home and had been on their way to the Egyptian border but had decided instead to stop and stay at al-Bayda when residents there opened their home to them and insisted that they stay with them. Sadly, this heartening informal solidarity network can only accommodate so many and other less fortunate families have been sheltering in the desert, not knowing when they will be able to go back to their homes or whether their homes will still be standing once their present nightmare is finally over.