By Yosi Burckhardt
TRIPOLI, Libya, 13 January 2012 – On 7 January, nearly a year after conflict broke out in Libya, more than 1.2 million children returned to school, many for the first time in many months.
“I really missed going to school,” said 13-year-old Sultan.
The 10-month conflict took a heavy toll on Libya’s education system, with many schools closed, damaged, or repurposed for military or humanitarian use.
During the long months of fighting – and the period of uncertainty that followed – Sultan was mostly confined indoors, forced to put his education and sports activities on hold.
He is happy the war is now over. “I look forward to meeting the new teachers and to making new friends,” he said.
Teachers are also keen to resume their work. “I am an English teacher, but I haven’t spoken any English since May 2011 and have lost my practice,“ said Alia Sahlia, an instructor in a Tripoli school.
Although schools partially re-opened in September and October, many remained empty due to lack of materials. Many people also feared shootings and the explosive remnants of war littering many parts of the country.
The conflict left deep scars among children who witnessed the injuries and sometimes deaths of loved ones. One of Sultan’s close friends was injured by a bullet from celebratory gunfire. “I want the random shooting to stop,” he said.
According to Khaled Hamouda, the deputy headmaster of a school in the outskirts of Tripoli, the violence has changed the way many children play. “They want to play with guns now,” he said.
Dunia, 13, lives in Hay Dimashq, a neighbourhood close to the compound of the former leader Muammar Gaddafi. “During the war, we could hear the bombings and shooting every day,” she said. “Now I just want everyone in Libya to live together in peace and stability.”
Education key to recovery
As more schools are demined and rehabilitated, with assistance from UNICEF and other partners, parents are increasingly comfortable sending their children back to the classroom. And getting children back to school is a key first step toward helping them recover a sense of routine, and putting the country back on track toward peace.
Minister of Education Suleiman Sahli stressed the importance of creating a holistic and inclusive education system. Children must become active participants in the learning process, he insisted.
But will they require other services, as well. Severely distressed children and their families are receiving psycho-social support to help them deal with their recent experiences. Nadia Ajbali, a social worker at Al-Salam School, notes the conflict’s continued toll on children. “When they hear a door slam, they get scared,” she said. “They are also more attached to their parents” than before.
Special efforts are also underway to track internally displaced and other vulnerable children to ensure that they are enrolled in school. The Ministry of Education is preparing school transportation for those most at risk of being excluded.
With assistance from the European Union and other donors, UNICEF is supporting Libyan authorities in broad-based education reforms. One key challenge is to improve the quality of education and to restore teacher-student trust.
“I hope that the teachers are better qualified and motivated in the future, and that the teacher-student relation will no longer be based on fear as it was in the past,” said Dua, 16. He says he wants to study politics and use his education to help build a new Libya.