Kids of War: Libyan Children Fight a New Battle at School

by Danielle Shapiro Jun 30, 2012 4:45 AM EDT
While Libya lurches forward to its landmark parliamentary election, its children face a brutal conflict on the playground.

As Libya gears up for its parliamentary election in July, a battle roars on in an unexpected place—the schoolyard. In burned-out neighborhoods riddled with bullet holes, toppled roofs, and crumbled walls, children find themselves at a new kind of war on the playground, as some come from families that supported Muammar Gaddafi, while others hail from homes that encouraged the revolution. These kids fight over things they do not quite understand, as they struggle to move on from the past.

“I have decided not to remember the war,” said Muammar Abdulsalam, a chubby-cheeked 13-year-old in the seaside neighborhood of Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi. Here, empty bullet casings litter the sidewalks; graffiti heralding the revolution is everywhere. War is hard to forget.

Sitting in his family’s first-floor apartment, with the bombed-out remains of his neighbor’s homes around him, he was trying to erase his past on a late January afternoon, three months after the end of Libya’s violent revolution that toppled Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship.

He and his family spent 30 terror-filled days last fall hiding in the dank, dark basement of their building in Sirte, as rockets blasted and gunfire rattled, until Gaddafi was captured and killed. Sirte was not only Gaddafi’s hometown, but a bastion of support for his regime, and the last Libyan city to fall to rebel hands. By war’s end, this young boy’s part of town, known as Area Two, would be Sirte’s most damaged neighborhood.

For young Muammar, the suffering began even before the bombs fell on his home. His father, a soldier in Gaddafi’s army, was killed in July, according to his mother, Salma Abdullah, 32. Her son has been deeply affected, she said, explaining that he has become much more attached to her and doesn’t sleep well anymore; he’s easily startled when she wakes him in the morning. The traumas of war cling stubbornly to his everyday life.

The destruction the fighting wrought throughout this city is inescapable. As residents pick their way through the rubble of their lives, they must also tread carefully to avoid explosive conflicting allegiances. In Sirte, as in much of Libya, there is criticism of the transitional government and concern about a flow of weapons. Tensions between those who supported Gaddafi and those who supported the rebels that overthrew him seem only thinly veiled.

At the same time, unexploded weapons lurk beneath the rubble. Ali-Marc Wazne led mine-risk education programs in Sirte for an organization called the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, noting that the danger is extreme. From December through January, his group cleared 1,200 unexploded weapons.

Nowhere are the challenges of rebuilding and reconciliation played out more powerfully than in the lives of the city’s children. For many, just walking to school has become fraught. In Muammar’s neighborhood, his path to school passes crumbling building after building, gaping with bomb holes, some almost perfect circles strafed with marks like the rays of a sinister sun. Everywhere there are shattered windows and the black stains of fire. Garbage piles are ubiquitous. The city aches with damage.

Friends and teachers are missing from school. Parents and relatives are dead. A new flag flies; children sing a new national anthem. Even friendships are dangerous to navigate.

Inside the Taleah Alnaser school, where about 675 first-grade through ninth-grade students gather, Muammar’s classmate, Asel Salam, 12, opened the door to what was once her second-grade classroom. Dressed in jeans and carrying a pink Hannah Montana backpack, her head covered in a delicate white scarf, she looked around at her former classroom, covered in dust and debris. An oblong bomb-hole marked the back wall, and windows were empty of their glass. “So scary,” Asel said quietly.

Other classrooms are in better shape, and school has resumed, but the signs of conflict are inescapable. Concentrating under the circumstances, Asel said, is not easy. “I am trying,” she said.

Abdulsalam Suwaysi, 12, another one of Muammar’s friends, lives in the same apartment building as his pal. Like Muammar, he no longer sleeps well. A gentle boy with curly hair slicked back into a mini mohawk, he recounted a recurring nightmare. “I remember I dreamed that our building had been hit and I was the only one who survived and I was crying and I saw all my family dead,” he said. “I dreamed similar to this dream every day. After I woke, I saw that none of this had happened, but now I thank god everything now is OK.”

The symptoms of Sirte’s children—bedwetting and nightmares, difficulty sleeping and concentrating in school, refusal to think or talk about the war, over-attachment to their parents—can be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to experts. Rune Stuvland, director of the Center for Stress and Trauma Psychology in Oslo, traveled to Libya in January to help the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Libyan Ministry of Education assess the psychological needs of children and plan intervention programs. “It shatters a child’s understanding of their community—of what is safe, what is not safe,” he said of the man-made violence. The usual reassuring routines and structures for kids—schools, churches—are chaotic in war. Nothing can be counted on.

In Sirte, nearly everything in children’s lives has changed. Friends and teachers are missing from school. Parents and relatives are dead. A new flag flies; children sing a new national anthem. Even friendships are dangerous to navigate. Often, children who come from families that supported Gaddafi pick fights with friends who come from families that supported the revolution, and vice versa.

At the Taleah Alnaser school, the simmering tensions erupted on a crisp but sunny late January morning, when students lined up in the cement schoolyard. Teachers led them in brisk, mostly stationary, calisthenics. They bent at the waist; they circled their arms. When they finished, about 20 girls and boys were selected to stand in front of their peers and sing the country’s new national anthem. Called “Libya! Libya! Libya!” it is the anthem adopted in 1951 upon Libya’s independence. When Gaddafi took over in a bloodless coup in 1969, he discarded the song. The country’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, brought it back last year.

Not all the children knew the words, and it soon became clear that some didn’t want to learn them. As the students filed back into their rows, a tussle ensued between two boys in Muammar’s class—one had sung the anthem, and the other was not happy about it. Quickly, a teacher approached the latter boy, yelling and grabbing him by the ear.

“Put your hands down!” the teacher said.

“I didn’t hit him! He came in front of me!” protested the 15-year-old boy, named Ramadan Al Gaddafi Ramadan.

“This is something we all have to accept whether we like it or not,” the teacher yelled.

Ramadan stared straight ahead. He said nothing, though a subtle smirk crept across his lips.

“OK, finish. We raise the flag and that is it,” the teacher said.

The scuffle was not an isolated occurrence, students and teachers said. Asel, who was among those singing the national anthem, said she has found her friends deeply divided. “Some like Muammar Gaddafi,” she said. “And others not. They like all of this destruction.”

Still, despite the countless challenges for the residents of Libya, there are flickers of hope. Offices, restaurants, and shops are now open in Sirte. They might operate on a building’s first floor—with the second a nearly collapsed, charred shell—but they operate. Boys play soccer on a pitch outside Muammar’s apartment. Girls walk home from school, all a-giggle; they suck on lollipops, whisper to their friends, share rides on a partially broken pink scooter.

And some children, like Abdulsalam Suwaysi, Muammar’s neighbor, manage to think about the future. “I want to be an engineer,” he said. “I want to rebuild my country.”

Susan Schulman contributed to this story.

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