How they fled Libya by climbing 10-foot wall
MANILA, Philippines—Leaving Tripoli and traveling to the border for seven hours through 24 checkpoints was a cakewalk compared to the hell a group of 51 Filipinos found where they reached the Tunisian border.
As Libya teeters toward civil war and tens of thousands of foreign workers flee, the situation at the Tunisian crossing has become “unimaginable,” said a Filipino in the group that flew to Manila Wednesday via Hong Kong.
“It’s inhuman. If you saw that, it’s worse than a jail cell, or a pig or dog cage. The authorities can’t control it. Many people will die in that place,” said the Filipino who asked that he be identified only as Jess, a 42-year-old cook.
Vilma Guillemer, 40, her three children—Jeff, 16, Mariela, 15, and Lee-Ann, 13—and three other teenagers entrusted to her by a friend were among the 51 who arrived Wednesday.
Brotherhood of Filipinos
Guillemer said her entire experience left her thankful to the Philippine government for assisting them and to her fellow Filipinos who helped her through the ordeal.
“I saw how we really could depend on other Filipinos. It was like a brotherhood,” Guillemer said.
The 51 were among 168 Filipinos assisted by the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli in leaving the rebellion-wracked North African country for neighboring Tunisia.
Since violence broke out in Libya last month, more than 700 Filipinos have returned to the Philippines, according to Manila airport authorities. Most of them were repatriated by their private employers.
Guillemer said her husband Gabriel, a consultant at Craddock Engineering, a petroleum company in Tripoli, chose to stay behind to help others. They belong to the Iglesia ni Cristo sect.
Her daughter Lee-Ann said: “All the sacrifices will be over soon. In our religion, he has a responsibility to his brothers.”
‘Like a nightmare’
Guillemer said her family lived in a rented house at a “quiet” private locality.
“In our house, it was silent. But we feared that the silence meant the chaos was about to begin,” she said. “In the 18 years I spent there, this is the first time we had such violence. I couldn’t believe it. My friends said this is just a dream. It was like a nightmare.”
Guillemer said she and the teenagers went to the Philippine Embassy, which arranged their transport to the Tunisian border.
“The driver we hired was kind,” she said. “I knew Arabic so I could talk to the driver. He was like a brother. He kept telling me ‘Don’t worry, you’d be able to get out safely,’” she said.
Along the way, she said her group had to go through 24 checkpoints. Fortunately, they did not experience harassment from the patrol guards or protesters. “They didn’t ask for our cell phones and laptops, unlike the others.”
Chaos at the border
But at the Tunisian border, the scene was chaos, Guillemer said.
“At first, the crowd was still sparse, so we had to walk around all the sleeping people of other nationalities. Then the crowd began to get thicker and thicker until the point when it seemed only half my body could go through,” she said.
Guillemer said her group decided going through the gates was too risky.
“We had to climb the wall,” she said.
Guillemer said she had to appear strong for the children “because if they saw me looking weak, the other six kids would weaken, too.”
At that point, the Filipinos propped each other up, using shoulders and arms to allow the others to get through.
“It was dangerous. Imagine little kids, imagine 1-year-old, 3-year-old kids, we all propped them up by their waists so they could cross,” Jess said.
He said some of the other nationalities were even “taking advantage” of the women. “When we reacted, the Filipinas just said never mind, so they could all cross quickly.”
Jess said upon reaching the Philippine Embassy in Tunisia, the group was taken to a shelter, and then whisked by bus to the airport.
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