Four-year-old Omar Salem lies in a hospital bed, his tiny body covered in scars. One freshly healed wound traces its way down the full length of his torso, serving as a permanent reminder of the day he almost died. Report by Guy Hubbard. BENGHAZI, Libya, 24 OCTOBER 2011.
VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on the organization’s effort to assist children affected by the conflict in Libya.
“It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” recalls Omar’s aunt Fteima, who brought him here from Sirte, “The whole family was at home, including Omar, his father and his two sisters, Isra and Sajida, when the rebels started firing rockets. They ran to another house while NATO helicopters circled and then, when they got to the other house the helicopter hit them with two rockets. The two sisters and their father were blown to pieces – they died before they reached the hospital.”
As she describes the tragic event, Fteima’s solemn face contorts in anguish. She was a nurse in Sirte during the early stages of the fighting and worked weeks without a break as injured fighters and, more often, injured civilians, overwhelmed the hospital.
“Before my family was brought to me at the hospital, I had already been there nine days because of the amount of casualties we were receiving and after that I worked another 16 days,” she explains.
It was only when the hospital itself became a target and a colleague was killed, that Fteima left Sirte and brought her injured nephew to Benghazi’s Al Jalaa hospital.
UNICEF provides support
Al Jalaa has been on high alert since the start of the uprising in February. Ambulances queue three deep bringing in the injured, but, as in Sirte, many of the injured are civilians. Dr. Emad Mohammed has seen hundreds of people coming through his Emergency Room. “We have a lot of civilian injuries, mostly to the abdomen and thigh,” he explained. “Most of them die before reaching the hospital.”
Also arriving on the outskirts of Benghazi are displaced families who have been chased from their homes for their association with the past regime. They’ve come with whatever they could fit in their cars and trucks and for weeks they’ve camped out in tents and warehouses at an abandoned industrial site.
UNICEF is currently working with partners at a transitional site closer to town to support the water and sanitation needs of the displaced. Providing clean water through the temporary use of trucks and bladders, they are also installing a permanent water system for the camp.
In addition, UNICEF has been working with Save the Children to set up 14 child friendly spaces in Benghazi, five of them in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, where children can return to a semblance of normality. In these spaces, they get to play, to draw and to be children again – away from the sights and sounds of fighting.
Amanda Melville, a Child Protection Officer for UNICEF Libya highlighted the tremendous emotional toll war takes on a child. “Children are experiencing a range of different problems, I mean most of them are related to feeling afraid.” she said “So what we try to do, the first step is to get them somewhere safe, make sure they’re somewhere safe and then try as much as possible to return them to normalcy.”
One of UNICEF’s first goals in this regard has been to reopen and re-establish schools and to raise awareness of the psychological issues facing children in the wake of the conflict amongst those people who care for children, such as parents and teachers. They are also trying to set up an identification and referral system for children who have been so severely affected by the conflict that they will need specialised help.