Libya is ground zero for Europe’s migrant crisis. Tens of thousands of people from across Africa and Asia use it as a transit point to get to Europe. It’s attractive because it’s relatively close to southern Europe, and because Libya is itself a country in conflict.
But now the authorities in Libya are trying to get a handle on the migrants. Hundreds are being locked up prior to deportation. But conditions are terrible.
Bel Trew of The Times of London got rare access to the camps and just got back. She calls the conditions “horrific.”
“We’re talking about airless, windowless houses in soaring temperatures,” she says, “with hundreds of people in these rooms. And they’re often there months at a time because they are waiting to be repatriated home.”
The interior ministry said one of the explosions was a bombing in Mar Gerges church in Tanta, a city in the north of Egypt in the Nile Delta, located between Cairo and Alexandria. The church was full at the time with worshippers observing Coptic Christian Palm Sunday.
Reporter Bel Trew, Egypt correspondent for the Times of London, told NPR that the pope was leading prayers when the suspected bomber attempted to enter the church. Security forces managed to keep the attacker outside, but at least three officers were killed.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Minutes after the first missile hit, Abdelhamid al-Youssef and his young wife, Delal, scooped up their nine-month-old twins and ran down to the street, thinking it would be safer. Three more missiles landed nearby, and Abdelhamid ran back to check on his brothers.
His efforts were in vain: his brothers were dead. And when he returned to his wife and babies he found them dead too.
A few metres down the road in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, his cousin Alaa and his wife, Ayaa, and their 20-month-old son Najdat, could feel a boiling sensation in their lungs as an odourless, colourless gas seeped in through the windows.
“The air didn’t smell bad at first but it became heavy, you couldn’t breathe. It felt like it had weight in it,” said Ayaa, a teacher. “Then our eyes started to hurt and we felt terrible.”
The toxic clouds, believed to be a lethal cocktail of chlorine and nerve agent, were heavier than air, and pooled at the bottom of apartment blocks and houses — with inevitable consequences for Abdelhamid’s wife and twins, and many others who had gone to ground in the mistaken belief that that would save them.
Ayaa said that a lorry arrived soon after the attack to remove the dead. “They told us we have a lot of dead people inside. I looked in — and there were my relatives,” she said.
Among the heap of bodies she saw Abdelhamid’s twins and wife. They looked frozen, statues of figures who had died gasping for breath. Ayaa collapsed at that point, waking up hours later in hospital. “I saw them — they were all dead. All are dead now. Why?” she asked, weeping. “We are just poor people, we are just normal.”
In all, 22 members of the al-Youssef family were killed in what was one of the worst chemical attacks of the six-year Syrian war.
The airstrike took place at 6.30am on Tuesday near the town’s main bakery, on Youssef street, which is named after the family who have lived there for generations. Until this week, that family was one of the largest in town.
At least 86 people, 27 of them children, were killed in the attack. The youngest were Aya and Ahmed, Abdelhamid’s twins, who were buried in rough graves on Wednesday. Another 546 were injured, according to Unicef.
Witnesses said Sukhoi-22 fighter jets dropped four missiles on the area — the last of which contained the toxic gas. Footage taken at the scene showed men, women and children foaming at the mouth, convulsing and gasping for breath. Rescue workers, many of whom were later taken to hospital themselves after succumbing to the gas, stripped the victims and hosed them down.
PHOTO: AYA FADL