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In Tunisia, an army of volunteers rushes to aid Libyans

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Tens of thousands have already fled Libya, and thousands more are expected to follow. (Feb. 26)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 10:27 PM

RAS JDIR, TUNISIA - On Friday, Khadiga Mhiri, a 32-year-old pharmacist, was watching scenes of desperate people fleeing over the border from Libya on the television screen of her home in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

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Hours later, she hopped on a bus to make the eight-hour trek south, joining what has become an extraordinary outpouring of solidarity in this country, where the uprisings sweeping the Arab world began.

The mounting crisis in Libya has so deeply touched this nation - which threw off the yoke of its authoritarian ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, on Jan. 14 - that Tunisians from all walks of life, of all social classes, are banding together to aid Libyans and others fleeing that neighboring country.

In caravans of cars, buses and vans from all parts of Tunisia, hundreds of people - from Muslim fundamentalists to Tunisian Boy Scouts - are streaming toward the border, forming an impromptu army of volunteers who see events in Libya as the fruit of a democratic seed planted in North Africa by them.

"You must understand what this means for us, we who have just won our own freedom," Mhiri said. "I am here to transmit that freedom to my brothers across the border, to help in any way I can."

The situation in Tunisia, however, remains in flux. Officials said Saturday that four people had died as a result of fresh unrest in Tunis, according to the Associated Press, and a curfew was imposed on the city.

Tunisian support for the opposition in Libya predates the worst of the violence there. Tunisian bloggers and youth organizations that used social networking Web sites to organize their domestic campaigns have been offering advice to their Libyan counterparts. In text messages, e-mails and Skype chats, they have acted as advisers, suggesting, for instance, that the opposition in Libya send out tweets and carry protest signs in English and French, as well as Arabic, to garner more international attention.

"Young people in Tunisia have a campaign going to support the Libyans, distributing any pictures and images and counseling them on how to get their information out," said Zouhir Latif, a Tunisian documentary filmmaker and dissident who is working with youth organizations. "The move to free Libya has become a cause deep in the hearts of Tunisians. It is a fundamental part of the freedoms being won from throwing off dictators here and in Egypt."

Others in Tunisia are digging deep in their pockets - and veins - to offer medicine, food and blood to the victims of Libyan violence. But Tunisians have met with little success in getting those donations over the border; Libyan customs guards still loyal to Moammar Gaddafi have refused to allow the aid shipments into the country. The Red Crescent on Friday attempted to intervene, but that initiative appeared in danger as Libyan officials, after agreeing to let in the aid, changed their minds.

That has not stopped the likes of Mhiri from taking days off from work to offer fresh water to the exhausted streams of migrant foreign workers and smaller groups of Libyans escaping the violence raging a few dozen miles away.

Here at the border, the Tunisian military has set up temporary shelters and medical tents for 35,000 Egyptian migrants who have poured out of Libya in the past few days. But the vast pool of volunteers appear to be providing the most assistance, operating stations of donated food and greeting exhausted refugees with free tuna sandwiches after they pass under a massive billboard of Gaddafi on the Libyan side of the border.

When a Libyan supporter of Gaddafi, buying supplies at a store on the Tunisian side of the border, told a foreign journalist that all was calm in Libya, Tunisian men surrounded him. "Liar! Liar! Go back to Moammar!" they yelled, causing the man to beat a hasty retreat.

On Saturday, scores more vehicles toting Tunisian volunteers were cruising down the two-way road toward the border, honking their horns and bearing signs in Arabic with words such as, "Let us help our Libyan brothers!"

In the dusty border town of Ben Gardane, the main hospital has become the seat of a national drive to collect medical supplies to aid refugees, as well as to help those in need in Libya if the border opens.

In one room, volunteers sorted donated supplies ranging from antibiotics to disposable diapers under a makeshift sign calling for Gaddafi's ouster. Using a soccer analogy, the sign calls Ben Ali "the first goal" and deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "the second goal." Gaddafi, it says, will be the third.

"For us, this is about the spread of the revolution that will free us all," said Dhieb Zaghdoud, 29, who helped organize protests in January against Ben Ali and is helping coordinate volunteers at the border. "We don't know how long it will take, but Gaddafi will be next."


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