Life Lessons

How are children in Benghazi coping with war?

Ryan Calder
Ryan Calder

Ryan Calder, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is traveling in rebel-held eastern Libya this month, interviewing the revolution’s participants and witnesses. You can read earlier installments in this series here.

BENGHAZI, Libya — "What do you do in the event of a third-degree burn?" asks Dr. Randa Abidia.

"The hospital! Straight to the hospital!" the kids respond.

I’m sitting in the third row of a classroom at the Libyan International Medical University (LIMU) in Benghazi. In the room are 10 girls and five boys, in front of whom stand Randa and her two student assistants, Maryam and Enas. They’re teaching a one-week course on first aid for children ages 9 to 14, and today’s two-hour session is on burns.

This could be a classroom anywhere — most of the kids are paying attention, with one or two excitables in the front of the room raising their hands at every prompt, and one or two squirmers fidgeting and chatting in the back. But this is Benghazi and school has been closed since Feb. 16, when the revolution got under way.

Randa is dean of LIMU’S faculty of health sciences. She and other staff and students at the university are volunteering to keep these kids busy — and to teach them first aid that could prove vital in a city that, for now, lies just beyond the reach of war.

With the eastern front in Libya’s conflict hovering around Ajdabiya, 100 miles southwest of Benghazi and the last city protecting it from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s militias, renewed shelling and street fighting are a real possibility here. A city of 800,000 — Libya’s second largest after Tripoli — and the temporary capital of the country’s opposition, Benghazi has already seen fighting twice: Once in mid-February, when the revolution began, and again in mid-March, when Qaddafi’s tanks were on its outskirts and hard-core Qaddafi supporters emerged from within the city, strafing civilians with Kalashnikovs. Coalition airstrikes saved Benghazi in mid-March, forcing Qaddafi’s militias to retreat. Now, the city is at peace and firmly in opposition hands, though the mood remains tense and families keep a close watch on their children.

Randa divides the class into groups of three, pulls out a red pen, and draws a small circle on the hand of one member of each group. "You’ve just gotten a second-degree burn," she explains. "Go treat it!"

The room becomes a beehive of activity. The kids shuffle off, rinsing the "wound" under cold water, packing it with gauze, and pretending to take their charges to the hospital.

The kids are having a great time. They seem cheerful. After class, some of them stick around to talk.

"What’s it like at home now that there’s no school?" I ask.

"Boring," says Ahmad, a chubby-cheeked 11-year-old. He’s sporting a red jacket bearing the logo of Al Ahli, Benghazi’s most popular soccer team.

"Yeah, boring," agrees Maryam, a 10-year-old girl.

"Boring," echoes Walid, 13. "I don’t see my friends anymore," he says. Concerned about safety on the streets, parents are keeping their kids at home. "I have a lot of free time. But I’d rather be in school — I like learning."

Boredom isn’t the worst of what war has brought these kids. One of the girls in this week’s group of students just lost a cousin to fighting in Brega — she was too sad to come to class today. "In the group of kids I taught two weeks ago," Randa explains, "one had a brother who was missing, another lost a cousin, and another had a relative who died in Qaddafi’s shelling." The mother of the child who lost a cousin called Randa and asked her to give the kids time in class to talk and write about their lost loved ones, which they did.

Randa’s first-aid course for kids also includes a session on weapons — specifically, how to identify and stay away from them. But Randa’s husband, dentistry professor Ahmed El-Hejazi, notes that after less than two months of war, the children have already learned to identify weapons by sound. "They hear a tuk-tuk-tuk and they say, ‘That’s a Kalashnikov,’ or ‘That’s a fourteen-point-five meem taa‘" [a reference to a 14.5-mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun — meem taa is the Arabic acronym for "anti-aircraft"]. "They hear an explosion and say, ‘That’s a hand grenade’ or ‘that’s a missile.’"

"Especially the boys," Randa adds.

This week’s group of first-aid students may not have lost immediate family members, but it’s clear that the war has not been easy for them. "My aunt, uncle, and cousin are in Tripoli," Amina, a 10-year-old girl with short hair, told me. "I’m worried about them. Especially my cousin — I really like him."

"When I was at the Katiba [the military base in Benghazi that rebels stormed on Feb. 20, liberating the city], I saw blood," says Nadia, a 14-year-old girl with braces. "It was scary."

"I get scared when I hear bullets," says Lina, an 11-year-old girl with big eyes and a white headscarf with flowers embroidered on it. "My parents don’t tell me what’s going on. I keep asking them, but they don’t want to tell me because they don’t want me to worry. It makes me even more scared."

Randa has seen a change in attitude between the group of kids she taught two weeks ago and this week’s group. "The first group were more optimistic," she notes. In late March, the war was going well for the opposition, thanks to aggressive coalition airstrikes on the eastern front that allowed opposition forces to advance rapidly toward the strategically vital city of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown. The kids, like their parents, sensed that an end to the war might be near.

But this group, Randa explains, realize that the war may drag on. They’re less upbeat and more nervous. "I worry that I’m going to have to repeat fifth grade," says Amina.

"Do you watch the news on TV?" I ask the kids.

"Yeah, I have to," says Mona, 12. "It’s boring — there’s no Internet. And when I come home, my parents are always watching the news."

Lina agrees. "People are always watching the news at home. It’s painful to watch people who have been burned and wounded."

"What did you watch before the war?" I ask her.

"Cartoons," Lina replies softly, her voice breaking. "But now, it’s always Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. All the time."

She looks past me and stares out the window. Her eyes tear up. Until now, the kids had been bouncy and energetic. Now Lina buries her head in her arms on her desk. The girl next to her leans over and comforts her.

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