Interview: Children in Libya's Misrata caught in stream of bullets: UNICEF official

09:42, May 19, 2011      

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There was something strikingly accurate but grim when a father said his nine-year-old son was one of the lucky ones after he survived a shrapnel wound from an explosion nearby in the western Libyan city of Misrata, recalled James Elder, an official from the United Nations Children 's Fund (UNICEF).

The father chose those words very carefully -- relieved that his son, Mufteh, was alive -- Elder, a communications chief for the emergency response team in Libya for UNICEF, told Xinhua in a recent interview.

"Very much as a parent and as a humanitarian worker, I understood what he was saying because his son had not been killed, he had managed to get him to (Benghazi) by boat," Elder said. " From his perspective and given from what he had probably seen in Misrata or what he had known from others in his hometown of Misrata, he was considering himself a lucky one because his son was alive."

The nine-year-old boy was playing, just steps away from his home, when leftover shrapnel from a mortar explosion close by tore at the boy's face. "It really did rip through him," Elder said.

In the port city of Misrata, where streets and buildings slid into urban battlegrounds, as tanks cluttered the grounds and snipers angled themselves on rooftops, rebel fighters have wrestled with forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Relentless in tactics, Gaddafi's forces have pounded Libya's third biggest city, breaking their way into the main boulevard of Tripoli Street mid-March as rebels tried to fend them off.

As the besieged city became a steady stream of bullets, children nestled in the fighting, remain stuck in the crossfire.

It was about 60 days into the conflict when Mufteh narrowly escaped death.

"His father reacted quickly and tried to stem the bleeding, tried to get him into a hospital, which wasn't easy because of the level of fighting meant that you couldn't just run to the hospital," Elder said.

With the street battles ravaging around them, the father and son were evacuated by boat from Misrata's port, seen now as the only lifeline, less than 36 hours later for additional medical care to Benghazi, the de facto capital of rebel-held eastern Libya.

"Anyone making that journey out of Misrata had a very intense ordeal for a matter of weeks or more," Elder said, "It's a very difficult boat ride -- if you're on it, it's one you want to be on."

For Elder, who met Mufteh in a Benghazi hospital overrunning its capacity as patients poured in and medical supplies short, he was "shocked and dismayed to see him in this state".

"(I was) looking at a little boy who can't speak, whose face was blasted, got cuts across his face, needs a couple of operations and has got some chest wounds," Elder said. "I felt helpless ... how is this happening to a nine-year-old?"

Injuries to the boy's face, mouth and lips impaired the boy's ability to talk, but he was stable, Elder said.

"He was lucky," the father told Elder.

Seemingly those words struck Elder as he recounted the moment the three shared in the hospital.

"You are seeing people endure things that shouldn't have to," he said. "It's a really horrendous scenario. And for the parents too, I can't imagine a greater form of terror for parents, knowing their ability to protect their kids has just been consistently chopped away."

Unconfirmed reports from human rights groups, residents on the ground and media also revealed killing and maiming of children in Libya, says the UN.

From the unraveling of the conflict till about April 17, 20 children under the age of 18 have died due to shrapnel from mortars and tanks, and bullet wounds, Elder said.

UNICEF has said that the majority of those children fell under 10 years old with the youngest being just nine months.

Overseeing the first wave of humanitarian support from UNICEF in mid-April for two weeks in Benghazi, Elder also spent time assisting new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in verification methods on abuses against children.

With it being in the "early verification stages," Elder could only speak about the generality regarding it but noted that children struck by bullets, mortars or bombs, were among the most severe.

"We were trying to get as much as hard evidence as we could in terms of particular violations affecting children or women," he said.

He pointed out that there is no verification as of yet on recruitment of children in fighting or abduction.

Reports have also surfaced that troops are using rape as a weapon of war. British aid agency Save the Children in April said they spoke to around 300 children in six temporary camps in Benghazi, who heard reports of rape on children as young as eight who fled the areas of Ras Lanuf, Misrata and Ajdabiyah, but could not confirm the exact rape incidents. It was unclear what side of the troops committed the acts, the agency said.

"Until we see the sincerity and a proper ceasefire, children are going to be caught in this conflict and in the most brutal form in terms of violations," Elder said. "But at the same time, as long as the conflict continues, children are going to suffer trauma and deprivations to their daily needs because humanitarian workers' supply lines aren't open."

Misrata's safety-net remains the port, but Gaddafi's forces have continued in recent weeks to mine the port, shell the shoreline, and target ships carrying supplies in and residents out.

With the UN repeatedly calling for an immediate ceasefire, rebels at the moment, seem to have made gains in capturing the city back.

But for children, their playgrounds are forever etched into war- zones with the longer term impact still unknown.

Source: Xinhua
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