Children under increasing threat as fighting continues in Libya

A Palestinian woman comforts her five-year-old daughter, Maliha, at the Saloum post along Egypt’s border with Libya. Maliha wears makeup she has been playing with. Their family has been stranded at the border post for 21 days. ©UNICEF/NYHQ/Ramoneda

Report by James Elder in Benghazi, Libya  — Before intense fighting engulfed Misrata 50 days ago, five-year-old Dava* would play dress-ups and make beaded necklaces. In this she was probably typical of most five year olds living in the western Libyan city. But who would know? For the first two months of this conflict, Libya appeared as this peculiar place devoid of children. There are many inexplicable things we see and hear in Libya, but the strangest has been the initial, almost complete absence of children from images and reports out of the conflict-ridden country. We didn’t see children, we didn’t hear from them, and much as we probed and queried we simply didn’t know nearly enough what was really happening to them.

We do now, and it’s worse than first feared. Dava was killed by shelling on her way to a playground. Reports continue to come in of children being killing and injured in Misrata in hideous incidents. We now know a little of their lives, because we have seen their dying moments.

The youngest child to bear the brunt of the fighting in Misrata was nine months old, and most of those who died over the last two weeks were less than ten years old. Dava’s parents are still trapped in Misrata. Many other children are traumatized from what they see and hear; many have limited access to essential daily needs of water and food; none are in of school; others like those the city of Zintan, south West of Tripoli, are completely cut off. Trapped amid the shooting and the shelling, they probably suffer a similar tragedy to those in Misrata.

Today the UN Humanitarian Chief reiterated calls for a cessation of hostilities; UNICEF has echoed this and called for an end to the siege of Misrata. UNICEF has provided some respite by delivering emergency health and surgical supplies, and safe drinking water. It has also provided play kits for children, so as to enable them to stay in the relative safety of indoors. There have been consistent reports of sniper fire hitting children in Misrata. This means children are confined indoors. The kits therefore aim to provide some distraction from the conflict.

Meanwhile, some children in other conflict-ridden cities have been able to flee. As a result an increasing number of Libyan children are receiving assistance. UNICEF is responding through the delivery of health kits and hygiene kits and is providing psychological support. Trauma is a reality for those like 7-year-old Mariam who saw the mortars destroy nearby homes and was only able to grab her diary as the family fled in their car. “There was so much noise, so many explosions,” she tells me, from the safety of a UNICEF-supported refuge. “I was crying, my parents were crying … When can I go home? What has happened to my home…” Her voice trails off. I fear we both know the answer, so we say nothing.

Children such as Dava and Mariam are today at the forefront of media coverage on Misrata; some extremely courageous journalists report from the front line, their correspondence underlining the confusion, pace and violence of the conflict. “UNICEF welcomes the new focus on Libya’s children,” says Thomas Davin, UNICEF’s emergency team leader for Libya. “They need to be seen and they need to be heard. But until the shooting stops, their stories will continue to be defined by terror and heartache.”