FEATURE-Children in Libya's rebel east await end of war

by Reuters
Tuesday, 21 June 2011 08:08 GMT


Image Caption and Rights Information

* With schools still closed, children wander streets

* University to remain shut until Gaddafi goes

* Teachers unpaid, rebels say school books need rewrite

By Maria Golovnina

BENGHAZI, Libya, June 21 (Reuters) - Ruwid Omar, a Libyan boy with a mop of sun-kissed hair, spends his days roaming the streets of Benghazi singing rebel songs, waving opposition flags and chatting to foreign visitors in fluent English.

"I lived in Manchester for eight years with my parents before. But I like Benghazi better actually," he said, squinting in the bright sun outside Benghazi&${esc.hash}39;s courthouse building -- a symbol of Libya&${esc.hash}39;s revolt against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

"I like the revolution. We are here (in the square) all day or at home watching TV," added the 14-year-old.

Schools have been closed in Libya&${esc.hash}39;s rebel-held east since the start of the uprising in February, and children like Ruwid have been largely left to their own devices.

Keen to distract students from a deadlocked war, the rebel leadership based in the sprawling coastal city wants to reopen schools and universities as soon as possible.

But that is proving hard. Security remains a concern in a city awash with firearms, and rebel leaders have given no firm timeline as to when education might resume.

Before, the curriculum was packed with classes praising "our dear Brother Leader". Pupils spent hours studying the Green Book, a collection of Gaddafi&${esc.hash}39;s ramblings on life and politics.

Schools were designed in a way that discouraged children and teachers from asking questions and challenging authority.

Rebels want to change that, even though weeding out Gaddafi sayings from textbooks and reshaping the curriculum will take time. Retraining teachers, long used to following orders rather than their professional instincts, is also tough.

"We hope to reopen them soon," rebel education minister Suleiman al-Sahli told Reuters. "We are still discussing this."

Restarting schools and universities will highlight the rebel authority&${esc.hash}39;s resolve to bring back normality to a city scarred by fighting. But teachers said they did not expect that to happen any time soon as the war drags on listlessly into a fifth month.

"We cannot start our studies until the (Gaddafi) regime collapses completely," said Dr Bubaker F. Shareia, executive general director of Benghazi&${esc.hash}39;s Garyounis University. "No one knows when this will happen."


Some Benghazi schools have opened unofficially -- part of a broader grassroots movement that has seen volunteers set up civilian committees to tackle issues from security to education in a city prey to lawlessness and sporadic violence.

At the Fatma az-Zahra school, volunteers gather pupils several times a week to explain to them what is happening in their home city, and teach some basic lessons.

Sitting in the shade of the school&${esc.hash}39;s patio festooned with rebel flags, children chanted "We are Libyans, raise your heads, be proud" and "Muammar, you will see what we can do to you".

Their voices echoed around the school&${esc.hash}39;s empty corridors. In one classroom, an English language textbook was left lying open on the side of a desk by an open window, its pages flapping in the wind blowing in from the Mediterranean.

"People in Tripoli are not as friendly as people in Benghazi," was scribbled on one page under an exercise called "Compare places in Libya".

"There is no school now so we just come here to draw and make songs against Muammar," said Nur Alhuda Ali, a 13-year-old girl. "Before I didn&${esc.hash}39;t know about Gaddafi but after the revolution I can see that everyone hates him. So Gaddafi must be a very bad person. Otherwise why would everyone hate him?"

Some said their parents made them study at home to compensate for the lack of official schooling.

History was distorted under Gaddafi&${esc.hash}39;s rule, creating a peculiar universe in which Libya was juxtaposed against a hostile world trying to destroy its post-colonial achievements.

Many textbooks on social studies will now have to be rewritten completely, rebels say. To achieve this, university professors have set up a research centre to tackle issues such as the overhaul of textbooks. But the process is not easy.

"We&${esc.hash}39;re trying to figure out what we need to fix and how to do it," said Omar Salabi, a senior figure there. "There was no civil society before. We have to change the way people think."

Many students are away, having taken up arms to fight Gaddafi troops on the front line. At least 100 students from Garyounis University have been killed and many more are missing.

Money is another problem in a sector which relies on state salaries. With oil output at a standstill, the rebel authority is broke, and no wages were paid at Garyounis University in May.

Pointing at the walls of his office dotted with nail holes where Gaddafi portraits used to hang, Dr Shareia said people were determined to make it work despite all the difficulties.

"When I look at my students I can see they are different. In the past they were nervous," he said. "Now they are happy to discuss things. They are helpful. It&${esc.hash}39;s nice to see how people can change. I think it&${esc.hash}39;s because they have hope."

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