Clashes between government and opposition forces in the Western Mountains region of Libya have blocked access to thousands of fleeing civilians, aggravating the humanitarian situation there, say aid workers and locals.
At least 40,000 people have fled the fighting in the area since April. Last week, according to Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 8,000, mostly ethnic Berbers, arrived at Dehiba, a border crossing into Tunisia. Most of the arrivals, mainly women and children, came with nothing.
The fighting has blocked access for the delivery of essential supplies to Yafran, Qalaa and other towns, raising concerns about the condition of the population, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Medicines, medical staff and food are also reportedly in short supply.
Giamal Dorman, an aid worker with the Libyan el-Hurra charity, told IRIN the situation in the region had become a “catastrophe”. His charity is one of many sending food, clothing, toys and a portable hospital to the refugee camps.
Wasim Sultan, education programme coordinator for Islamic Relief, told IRIN his organization was planning to send an aid convoy into Yafran and Qalaa as soon as it obtained security clearance. At present, government forces control both cities and have prevented access, he said.
At least 1,500 of those displaced have sought shelter at Ramada refugee camp in Tunisia, about 25km from the border with Libya. Here, two men from Ar-Riyana, a small town near Nalut, told IRIN they were forced to leave their homes on the spur of the moment.
"We feared what would happen to our children, and also our names were on a ‘wanted list’,” said one father of toddlers. They claimed livestock had been destroyed and water sources had been cut off for three months.
"We didn't leave our home for 25 days because of the rockets," said a woman from Zintan, an opposition-held town in the Western Mountains region. Another young woman from Qalaa claimed she saw soldiers pouring petrol in the water wells. "If we had stayed, we would have died of hunger," she said.
According to the International Medical Corps (IMC), there are reports that government forces may have poisoned wells that provide water to Nalut.
"They have no food, no electricity, no medical aid," a mother of four, who left Zintan before government forces entered the town, told IRIN at Ramada camp.
The families worry how long they will stay at the camp. "Have you heard anything?" asked Intisar Masoud, a mother of three from Nalut. "Will we be here another week, another month, how long?"
On 6 May, the IMC said more than 50 Grad missiles fired by government forces reportedly landed in Zintan. Shelling and rocket attacks also occurred on the outskirts of Nalut. The Grad, a Soviet-designed weapon, lacks a guidance system and has a range of up to 40km.
The displaced, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), paint a consistent picture of Libyan government forces firing indiscriminately into towns and villages in the area. “The scale of the attacks, which have damaged mosques, homes, and landed near hospitals, suggests the government has made little or no attempt to focus on military targets,” said HRW's Nadya Khalife.
"The refugees said that government attacks from the outskirts of Nalut, Takut, and Zintan had damaged mosques, water facilities, homes and a school, as well as landing outside two hospitals," she added.
Derza Moncef, director for emergency services at Tataouine Hospital in Tunisia, about 100km from Dehiba, told HRW that the hospital had treated at least five Libyan refugees every day since 7 April.
Before the fighting started in February following anti-government protests, Zintan, a town largely inhabited by Arabs, had 40,000 people. Nalut and Takut, which are predominantly Berber, had 93,000 and 10,000 respectively. The Western Mountains area is also called Nefusa Mountains.
Under international humanitarian law, all sides are prohibited from targeting civilians and civilian objects or conducting attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants.
"Forces must take all feasible precautions to minimize the harm to the civilian population, including avoiding deploying in populated areas and ensuring all targets are military objectives," the human rights watchdog said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions