Refugee Aid Feeding Libya’s Rebels?

An army marches on its stomach, and the stomachs of Libya’s western rebels are frequently filled with food brought over the Tunisian border. One shop owner in the Tunisian town of Tataoine claims that anti-Gaddafi fighters “come with euro, dollar, pound. Seventy thousand, one hundred thousand dollars, they buy a lot of things to take to Libya”.

Buying supplies is fine, however, Marc Herman in The Atlantic claims that international aid to refugees in Tunisia is being used to supply rebel fighters inside Libya. According to Herman, one anti-Gaddafi supply depot across the border from Tataoine had pallets of cooking oil bearing the markings of, amongst other organizations, the World Food Program.

A few tons of cooking oil doesn’t mean the UN is the rebels’ quartermaster. But, in practice, refugee assistance is mixing with military logistics to a visible degree in Tunisia. “What’s the difference? There’s no difference between civilian and soldier in Libya now,” said Nader Ayousef, a former Fulbright scholar in Iowa who now acts as the rebels’ spokesman on the border. “All the soldiers were civilians before the war. Teacher, maybe bus driver, now soldier. I don’t think there is a difference. You help the soldier, you help the civilian. It is the same person.”

First, no it is not. Second, and more importantly, these claims deserve more investigation. Herman’s evidence is pretty scant and certainly not enough to claim a systematic practice by the rebels of using refugee humanitarian aid to feed its army. That said, these are serious charges. They undermine the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in the conflict zone and weaken the food security of refugees. Despite widespread support for the Libyan rebels in the international community, including some aid groups, humanitarian aid meant for refugees must not be used to support military operations. If the rebels need food, they must look elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Kirk Worley