Libyans Recuperating in Tunisia Eager to Get Home

The El Hana International is located on one end of Tunis’ famed Habib Bourguiba Avenue, directly opposite the Tunisian National Theatre. It is said to be a five-star facility, but at the moment, it resembles more of a hospice than a hotel. That is because leaders of Libya’s National Transition Council, the NTC, apparently made a deal with El Hana’s manager that fighters who fled from neighboring Libya could recover in their premises. Now, eighty percent of the hotel’s capacity is said to be injured Libyans recuperating from their wounds.

Libyans Recuperating in Tunisia Eager to Get Home
Injured Libyans at Tunis' El Hana International Hotel, 20 October 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

On Thursday night, many of them gathered in the hotel’s lobby to celebrate the news that Colonel Moammar Gaddafi had been killed by NTC fighters. There was no press there, no official representative from any government to be seen, no interviews being given. Rather, a hundred or so men seated in a multiple circles shared their joys and hopes with one another. Most had some type of cast securing a limb. At least a dozen sat in wheelchairs with one bandaged leg propped-up. And perhaps twice that many limped around with the use of crutches.

Libyans Recuperating in Tunisia Eager to Get Home
Injured Libyan celebrated in Tunisian street, 20 October 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

One man had his arm in a sling. He, like others, asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions. He said he was injured fighting for Libya, but when asked when he would return, he said “as soon as possible. Just as soon as I can.”

Though they are geographic neighbors, this year, the scenes in Tunis and Tripoli have been radically different. The actual distance between them – one-thousand kilometers – might as well be one-thousand light years. On 14 January of this year, protests in Tunisia led this country’s 23-year long ruler, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia. His downfall later served as the sparked for other movements across the Arab World. But it was almost bloodless. In a country of 10 million people, only 300 died in the unrest. Compare that with Libya to the east. It is six or seven times as large, has two-thirds the popular, a leader that gripped to power for twice as long, and the casualties were astonishing. More than twenty-five thousand people died trying to overthrow Gaddafi.

Moncef Marzouki is a human rights activist who recently returned to Tunisia from exile in Paris. His is the leader of the Congress Party, one of many contesting Sunday’s vote. Marzouki says the two countries are night and day. Tunisia, he notes, had a history of civil society and civil infrastructure. Libya, had none, and hence the bloodbaths.

Libyans Recuperating in Tunisia Eager to Get Home
Moncef Marzouki, head of the Tunisian Congress Party, campaigning in the street, 21 October 2011 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Perhaps that also explains the mass exile of Libyans to Tunisia, some one million now here. That’s fifteen percent of the entire Libyan population currently in Tunisian foster care. Thousands gathered on Thursday night outside the Libyan Embassy in the heart of the Tunisian capital to celebrate Gaddafi’s death. They waves flags, honked horns, danced and embraced. And they were joined by Tunisians.

But the two countries also appear destined to have different futures. That’s due, in part, to oil. Libya is flooded with so-called black gold. Tunisia has none worth mentioning. While Libya’s new interim government inherits thirty-two billion dollars worth of frozen assets to play with – and undoubtedly it will have a difficult time divvying it up in a way that seems fair to all – Tunisia’s leadership has no such bounty to speak of. What it does have is an election scheduled for 23 October. This Sunday’s vote will be historic, not just for the people of Tunisia, but for the region as a whole. Not since gaining independence more than half a century ago have the people of this country had a truly free and fair election. Since being allowed to do so, more than one hundred political parties have registered, and nearly a fifth are contesting this weekend’s poll. They are vying for the Assembly’s 217 seats, 18 of which (interestingly) are being reserved for votes from Tunisians living abroad. Equally worth a mention is a law requiring that all party lists be comprised fifty percent by women. That may not ensure half of the Assembly is female, since the women might actually be stacked at the bottom of the list. But it does mean that women will have some representation and a say in this country’s future. Rasa’a Minera, a female candidate who spent this final day of official campaigning out on Habib Bourguiba Avenue meeting voters, said she is confident women will comprise a significant part of the Assembly’s make-up.

The Libyans currently recovering in Tunisia might be overly-eager to get home, and understandably. But if they stick around for Sunday’s vote and pay close attention, they might see something inspiring and perhaps something worth taking back with them.