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February 27, 2011

Tunisian Hotel Offers Refuge from Libya Turmoil

by Lisa Bryant

Thousands of people fleeing the unrest in Libya continue to pour across the border into Tunisia.  While some are camped out at the border, the luckiest have found refuge at tourist hotels in the Tunisian town of Zarzis - where reporters are waiting to get into Libya.

The Odyssey hotel in the southern Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis is packed these days. But while some of the usual tourists from France and Germany are here, so are about 450 Chinese, who recently fled the unrest in nearby Libya.

They browse the Internet, take walks by the ocean - and wait to go home. Everybody has a story. Two days ago, Ruthia Zao and other employees of a Chinese construction team fled the city of Zawiya, about 50 kilometers from Tripoli. She describes listening to clashes between rebels and supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"Very scared because we can hear the sound of guns and bombs outside. At night, we can't sleep...we worried that some bad guys would come to the camp and rob us," she said.

Rebel fighters in Zawiya helped the Chinese reach the Tunisian border. "It's amazing. I really appreciate [it]. Maybe they have different political ideas, but they're very kind to the foreigners," said Zao.

As the Chinese celebrate leaving Libya, there are dozens of foreign journalists here impatient to get in. The border is only 65 kilometers away. But it is closed to journalists and entering Libya illegally is dangerous.

Zuhir Latif, a Tunisian television reporter based in Berlin, is among the few who have tried. "I'm doing a new documentary - the last days of Gadhafi. I have a camera crew here. I have a camera[man] in Benghazi, I have another...well hopefully he can do something in Tripoli. I'm moving inside and outside the border," he said.

Latif has been at the hotel for a couple of days. But he doesn't plan on staying much longer. "My place is not in this hotel, to be honest. It's good for two days - to take a good shower, to have some food, to meet with people from all over the world," he said.

For Odyssey hotel manager Shili Harakati, the packed hotel is good news. Tourism plummeted in January, when popular protests ousted longtime Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Harakati takes his hotel's curious mix of guests - and the Libyan crisis that brought them here - in stride.  He says Tunisians are savoring their own, unprecedented people's revolt. In these strange times, they aren't surprised about anything.