Four months since a violent uprising swept Libya and split the nation in a civil war, fighting continues between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and the opposition seeking to drive him from power.
Thousands of people have reportedly died as battles rage between Gadhafi’s forces, the rebel National Transitional Council and intervening international forces, with hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes or seeking refuge in neighboring nations, in some cases risking their lives to sail to Europe.
Boris Michel, head of operations in North and West Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said recently in Tokyo that as the humanitarian crisis in Libya continues, it was necessary that an intermediary such as the Red Cross, whose activities are funded by various governments worldwide, provide services for all sides of the conflict.
“There is an important need for a neutral intermediary that can offer services at the humanitarian point of view, to the different parties involved,” Michel said Friday during an interview with The Japan Times.
Visiting Tokyo to attend a symposium on the humanitarian crisis currently engulfing North Africa, and to brief Japanese authorities on the work of the ICRC and the Libyan conflict, Michel said that while the Red Cross and other organizations it works with have been doing their best to improve the lives of civilians, more help from the international community is required.
“For the civilian population to return to their normal lives, and for the humanitarian situation to stabilize and ultimately improve, the support of the international community is needed,” he said.
Since the Feb. 15 uprising that tore the nation apart, the Red Cross has responded by sending in medical teams and surgical supplies to conflict zones in eastern Libya, as well as supplying around 45,000 people with food and other necessities.
Michel said the Red Cross has also taken priority in visiting hundreds of detainees held by both sides of the conflict and to check whether their living conditions comply with the minimum standards of the law.
“We also make sure that these people are able to communicate with their families — they are very much anxious of the fate of their loved ones and relatives.”
The ICRC has also cooperated with the local Libyan Red Crescent and other Red Crescent societies to help those fleeing across borders to neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, as well as organizing more than 70,000 satellite phone calls for third-country nationals who needed to provide news to their families abroad.
Rebuilding destroyed infrastructure, including medical infrastructure and water pipes, are another important aspect of the ICRC’s work, as intense fighting has destroyed electric generators and water pipelines in Libya.
“What is also important for us is to deal with weapon contamination,” Michel said, explaining that the conflict has resulted in “tons and tons and tons of bombs being launched across the country, while massive amounts of weapons are circulating in Libya.”
“And all this fighting is leaving tons of unexploded items, bombs and shells, especially in urban areas,” he said.
In early June, the Red Cross, in tandem with the Mines Advisory Group, began destroying hundreds of unexploded devices in Ajdabiya, a city in eastern Libya. Specialists have already been clearing out and removing unexploded bombs from houses and schools in the area since May.
But such humanitarian activities do come with a certain amount of danger, Michel warned. “The day the ICRC is not in touch with one of the parties of the conflict, it will expose itself to misunderstanding and accusation of lack of neutrality, so it is extremely important for us to be in touch and engage in dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict,” he said.
“Nowadays we have an agreement with both the National Transitional Council and the government of Libya which allows us to open offices to operate independently and to carry out our humanitarian mission all across Libya, on all sides of the conflict,” Michel said.
But despite such efforts, Michel said there is still no end in sight to the conflict, as Gadhafi struggles to cling to power after 40 years of heading the regime.
While a political settlement is called for, Michel said he believes it may be a long time coming.
“I’m just hoping that it won’t be too long,” he said.