Syrian Refugees in Libya Compare Notes on Twin Uprisings

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

A Syrian family escaped a nightmare in Homs in February 2012 to seek refuge in Libya

He has purple, bruiselike depressions beneath his eyes. She stares at the floor. The faces of their three young children are covered in mosquito bites. Together, they sit on a pair of thin, donated mattresses on the floor of their temporary home. He does all the talking.

By the time the family fled Homs two months ago, the city had become Syria's most infamous killing field. Residents say President Bashar Assad's forces lobbed shells and bullets at besieged residents like they were animals in a cage. Massacres begot funerals and demonstrations that begot more massacres. Mohamed (whose name has been changed to protect the loved ones he left behind) remembers he dropped to the ground at one such funeral as Syrian forces opened fire — only to feel the bodies of those who were slower fall lifeless on top of him. "They didn't fall fast enough and they killed them," he says, his voice cracking.

The family's escape several weeks later was no less harrowing. The shelling barely missed them — four adults and six children — as they abandoned their home and fled south for the Jordanian border. Now they're safe, they say, because they're nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from Homs, in Benghazi, Libya.

Syrian refugees have fled to Libya in the thousands in recent months, although no official figures are available. In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Yahya al-Jamal, who helps run the Union of Syrian Revolutionaries there, a humanitarian outreach group, says he registered more than 700 new Syrian families in March alone.

Most of them fled the southern Syrian cities of Homs and Hama as the Assad regime shelled and shot at civilian areas where residents had staged protests and the rebel Free Syrian Army had found strongholds. But those who have made the long trek to Libya say that the North African state — currently going through its own tumultuous transition since the revolution that toppled the 42-year regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi last year — has been far more welcoming than most.

Libya's transitional government was one of the first foreign governments to formally recognize the opposition Syrian National Council, and it said in February that it would donate $100 million to the Syrian opposition. Across the country, Syrian refugees say that Libya has not only offered them a safer haven than Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, but that local volunteers have also helped keep them off the streets. "No one is living in refugee camps," says Mohamed Tarek Ziad, a young activist from Homs, who escaped a death sentence from the regime and settled in the eastern Libyan city of Darnah. "People have offered us houses and are working to get us assistance," he says. "Even the imams in the mosque — in each prayer, they pray for Syria. And sometimes they join us in demonstrations."

There's something bittersweet about the hospitality in Libya, and the reason is lost on few. "The Libyans have tasted the same pain," says al-Jamal, whose organization has shipped medical supplies to the refugee camps on Turkey's Syrian border, in addition to keeping hundreds of local refugee families afloat. "So that's why they're helping."

But it's more than that. The reason Libya is safe for Syrians, many say, is because unlike Syria's own ongoing struggle, the Libyan revolution succeeded. Libyans not only killed their dictator Muammar Gaddafi but also toppled his regime — and conspicuously, they did so with help.

Overwhelmingly, Libyans argue, that's why NATO, Europe and the U.S. have every reason to support the Syrian resistance. "Bashar al-Assad is the same as Gaddafi, and what we see happening in Syria is exactly what happened to us," says Salah Buhliga, the commander of the Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, one of Benghazi's largest rebel groups during the revolution, which, after months of NATO-assisted fighting on Libyan front lines, is now being incorporated into a fledgling national army. "Why did NATO intervene in Libya? For the injustice. So for the same reason, they should help Syria."

In Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, that sentiment is particularly acute. Just over a year ago, in the final hours before a U.N. resolution authorizing NATO intervention was passed and implemented, Gaddafi's forces had reached Benghazi's doorstep, hurling tank shells and mortars into the city's outer neighborhoods. Many remember their fear at the time: that a massacre was imminent. "If NATO had done nothing, Benghazi would be finished, and I'd be dead, God willing," says one Benghazi resident, Saad Abdel Ghader, who used a recent Friday afternoon to picnic on the city's grassy outskirts with his family. It's a hindsight widely echoed across the country.

But the Syrians who have fled Homs for the relative safety of their Arab Spring counterpart believe there's a far more sinister reason that Homs is not Benghazi. "It has been 13 months, but no one has helped us because it's not in their interest to do so," says Ammar, a Syrian refugee in Darnah, who declines to give his last name because his parents remain in Homs. "Libya has gas and oil, but we have none of that." His friend Mohamed Tarek Ziad puts it differently: "Libyans can pay for their war. They can pay NATO back."

Analysts and foreign policy makers say it's far more complicated than that. They point to Syria's sectarian dimension — its divided opposition and multiethnic, multireligious tinderbox of a population. They note its proximity to Iraq, where a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 sparked years of sectarian bloodshed and instability that have yet to see their end. And they point to the seemingly larger proportion of regime loyalists in Syria, compared with Libya — as well as powerful foreign backers, like Russia, China and Iran.

But the families who fled a nightmare on the streets of Homs to the safe but unfamiliar refuge of Benghazi aren't buying it. "We're a poor country," says Mohamed, whose family now resides in Benghazi. "Is that why they don't care about us? Is that why we have no media inside? Libya had the chance to get media inside to expose a lot of secrets, and maybe that's why [the U.S. and Europe] helped them." He pauses, his face contorting with sadness and anger. "Is it because they want a price for our blood?" he continues. "Or is it to protect Israel and Assad is the best protector of Israel?"

On April 11, the Assad regime agreed to a cease-fire brokered by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. The U.N. says 9,000 people have already been killed in the war that has dragged on for more than a year; nearly a quarter million have been displaced. And the Syrian opposition has said it is suspicious of any government pledges to halt the violence as previous declarations have preceded more military assaults on opposition strongholds.

"In America, the vicious killing of a dog or cat would make people sad for that animal," says Mohamed. "In Syria, it's children and humans who are getting killed on a daily basis," he says, staring imploringly at his foreign visitor. His 4-year-old daughter watches closely from the floor. "So now there's another question," he adds. "Is it because we're Muslims?"