By Abdel Rahman Ali
The Benghazi neighbourhood of Ganfouda is another Allepo in the making as militias and foreign forces have laid siege for months, depriving 130 families of food, water, and medicine.
Much of the world’s anguish over Syria these days has to do with the world’s apparent unwillingness to rescue civilians from a violent crisis. But like Aleppo, there is another city that needs saving.
Libya’s ongoing civil war has gone on for years, recently spilling into a residential area in the city of Benghazi called Ganfouda. Militias and foreign forces, such as the United Arab Emirates loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, have laid siege to the neighbourhood for months, depriving families of food, water and medicine. The UN and Human Rights Watch have called the situation an emergency humanitarian crisis. Simply put: the world can’t afford to stand around and do nothing on this one.
This disaster didn’t appear out of nowhere and, like Syria, it’s not without its own bad actors. Libya’s ongoing civil war has pit a legitimate, UN-recognized government based in the West side of the country against the Tobruk government in the East, which has allied with the brutal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces turned Ganfouda into a living hell and killed more than 60 civilians.
The official Libyan Army of the country’s legitimate government, just last week took control of the city of Sirte, a former Daesh (also known as ISIS) stronghold. Meanwhile, Haftar is busy laying waste to Ganfouda in a desperate effort to control the area under what he calls the fight on terrorism. Haftar’s army is willing to fight anyone who stands in his way, collateral damage be damned. It pains me greatly to note that my own 75-year-old mother, along with all my siblings and their children, are now trapped in Ganfouda. Their suffering has been unimaginable.
I, a Canadian citizen, have been trying for months to push the Liberal government to act on this tragedy. I’ve met with MPs, knocked on their doors, and visited their offices, but I regret to report I’ve been met mostly with silence and inaction thus far.
Unlike others in the past, our officials don’t have the luxury of saying that they “didn’t know.” I, along with many others, have communicated with Global Affairs Canada to speak out and help find a resolution to the humanitarian crisis. We’re always told that “the situation is being monitored.” Hélène Lavardière, the NDP critic for foreign affairs, has been the lone exception for choosing to at least speak out on this conflict and to stand with the people of Ganfouda.
Out of despair at this near-uniform indifference, I drove more than eight hours (in a snow storm) to Ottawa with my family to hold a press conference on Ganfouda on Parliament Hill. Our conference was set to start at 11 a.m. and, to our dismay, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a last-minute press conference at the same time, drawing away almost all the media. We ended up speaking to concrete walls.
All this begs an important question: why the silent treatment on this issue? It’s the same silence and inaction we’ve been witnessing by the Canadian government in relation to the tragedy in Aleppo until recently when it was really too late for the suffering there, whose people my family prays for every night. Is the reticence a political calculation? If so, what kind of arithmetic is Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion struggling with in his mind right now?
What’s happening in Ganfouda is nothing short of murder. It’s nothing new for Gen. Haftar, who has a prolific record of war crimes and seems intent on adding to it with each passing day. Is Canada worried about damaging their bilateral relationship with someone like this along with all the interests he’s known to represent and uphold? Obviously not. So, again, why the inaction?
I’ve tried many times to advocate for our government to at least call for a ceasefire and for the evacuation of civilians in Ganfouda. Recently, the Canadian Ambassador to Libya, David Sproule, finally sent out a tweet asking for unhindered access of humanitarian aid for Ganfouda’s people. Global Affairs Canada referred me to this tweet as Canada’s official position on the matter.
I was discouraged: have we reached the point as a nation where the governments chooses to react to a humanitarian tragedy in 140 characters? Perhaps it’s a way of saying that, actually, Canada really doesn’t take human rights that seriously.
Ganfouda is another Aleppo in the making. Starvation, contaminated water and lack of medication are all conditions reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch since September, yet Canada and the international community remains silent.
It’s high time the Liberal government puts its money where its mouth is. It’s time for the Trudeau administration to actively prod the United Nations to resolve the crisis. And if Canada wants to live up to its own pro-human rights rhetoric, it has to help save the families in Ganfouda, whose members have a right to protection under international law — laws that our country is a party to.
AbdelRahman Ali is a human-rights activist and a founder of Voices of Liberty and Justice for Ganfouda.