In February 2011, the Arab spring movement hit Libya. Peaceful demonstrations against Muammar Ghaddafi broke out in Benghazi and spread to most of the major cities in the country, including the capital, Tripoli. Ghaddafi ordered violent repression against the opponents to his regime. For months, up until October, loyalist and rebel forces clashed in a succession of offensives and counter-offensives that left thousands dead, wounded and displaced.

Just a few weeks after the allied intervention in Benghazi in March, the UNHCR sent me in with an emergency team to help assess the needs of the displaced people and refugees. Fighting was continuing in some areas, and we had to wait in Egypt for security reasons until we were given the green light to enter Libya. In April, we were finally able to go to Tobruk, then to Benghazi. Signs bearing the motto of the anti-Gaddafi movements, “We have a dream”, were all over the streets in the city that had narrowly escaped a major governmental operation weeks earlier…

In early June, I was part of the first UN team to travel to Misrata by boat. Walking in the devastated city streets, we could hear the sharp cracks of shelling in the distance. The frontline was only 20 kilometres away. The war was at our heels. Shattered buildings were bearing witness to the violence of the fighting in Misrata, the martyred city of the Libyan Revolution… Lives had been ripped apart, destroyed, cut short… In the street, I briefly met reporter Marie Colvin, who would be killed a year later in Syria.

While the population slowly filtered back into certain cities, African migrants and refugees who were present in Libya needed to be evacuated. Rumour had it that Ghaddafi – who was still in power – had hired mercenaries from Chad and Niger to protect himself and fight the rebel forces. Anyone with black skin was thought of as the enemy by the new masters who were gradually taking control of the country. Humanitarian agencies chartered boats to evacuate those migrants and refugees, as well as Iraqi families who had gone to Libya seeking their fortunes before the war.

While the Revolution of 2011 raised great hopes for stronger democracy, the years that followed were filled with extreme political instability and insecurity, which continue to this day…

All photos were taken between April and June 2011 in Libya and Tunisia: UNHCR / Hélène Caux

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