The Smallest Victims
The war in Libya has taken a shocking, wrenching toll on the children of Misrata and Benghazi.
MISRATA, Libya — "If we die we are martyrs and we will go to heaven." Standing in a pleated gray dress and flowery sandals, her curly brown hair swinging in pigtails, 8-year-old Aisha’s words are hauntingly austere for someone so young.
Aisha is a child of the revolution: one of the thousands of Libyan youth who in the last three months have seen more violence, instability, destruction, and death than most adults across the world witness in a lifetime.
The February uprising against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi quickly escalated into a civil war that has left no corner of the country untouched. Thousands have been killed, wounded, or displaced in the fighting. For months in the west Libyan city of Misrata, the battle raged in and around civilian homes. Heavy artillery, rockets, and cluster bombs fired by Qaddafi’s troops rocked the besieged city. There was no safe haven in which families could shelter.
"We wait, huddled together, praying that our home will not be the next one to be hit," said her father, Salem Ali, 55.
Qasr Ahmed, the wealthy residential neighborhood near the port, suffered frequent barrages of heavy shelling. In what Human Rights Watch termed "indiscriminate attacks," up to 80 rockets fell in less than one hour there. Entire homes were destroyed, windows down the block shattering from the force of the blasts.
The city became a lethal environment for children. Qaddafi’s use of cluster bombs, banned by international law, presented a particularly dangerous threat. "We call them candy bombs because the explosives look like toys," heart-and-lung surgeon Ramadan Atewah, who works in Misrata’s central hospital, told me. "Children are picking them up in the streets."
On April 19, the United Nations said at least 20 children were killed in the crossfire. Many more have been killed or wounded since. Five-year-old Malak’s home was hit by a Grad rocket on May 13. It exploded in the room where she and her siblings slept. Her sister Rodaina, 1, and brother Mohammed, 4, died instantly.
Sitting outside the hospital in an oversize wheelchair, wearing a flowery dress, a clip sporting the colors of the revolution in her hair, Malak plays with a flower. Her right leg has been amputated; her left leg and arm are broken.
Hospital staff crowd around her, chatting animatedly. For a brief moment Malak grinned, but minutes later she withdrew in what seemed a deep sadness.
"She hasn’t understood what is happening. It hasn’t sunk in yet that she has lost her leg. Sometimes she wakes in the morning thinking that her leg is still attached. Other times she says that her leg is in heaven," said her aunt, Sarah Abdell, 38.
Malak’s mother is so devastated that she cannot spend time with her one remaining child. "She came here once or twice, but then couldn’t come anymore. It is too hard," said Abdell, who now looks after Malak. "The mother doesn’t sleep at night. Sometimes she cries hysterically; other times she laughs hysterically."
The tragedy is too much for Malak’s young mind to understand. "She doesn’t believe that her brother and sister have died. She says she will go to heaven, knock on God’s door, and ask for them to come back," add Abdell. "She has nightmares. She wakes up at night screaming, ‘Our house is on fire!’ or ‘Our house is destroyed!’"
As rebels consolidate their control of Misrata, the shelling of residential areas is fast fading into a bad nightmare. But some children in Libya’s conflict have suffered the front lines of war firsthand. School boys as young as 15 have been conscripted to the front line by Qaddafi’s forces, say government troops captured by the rebels.
Sixteen-year-old Murad is still too young to shave, but until a few weeks ago he was toting weapons on the deadliest front of Libya’s brutal civil war, the "heavy road," near Misrata’s port. Until he was injured and captured by the opposition, Murad was an unwilling soldier in Qaddafi’s conscript army.
As he lies in Misrata’s hospital, his amputated left leg is now but a bloody bandaged stump. Murad told of how a Kalashnikov was thrust into his hand and he was driven off to war. "Many of the people there are younger than me," said Murad.
He is just one of dozens of school boys who have been taken from Tripoli and forced to fight for Qaddafi, say witnesses. Ninety boys between ages 15 and 19 were called to military barracks in Tripoli for "training" as soon as the popular uprising began on Feb. 17, Murad and another captive have independently recounted.
"We were kept locked in the camp and trained a little, and then they took us to the battalion," said "Abdul," 19, who was recuperating in a clinic in Misrata and was too frightened to tell me his complete name.
Doctors here recount numerous incidents of young loyalist soldiers being brought into the wards. The director of Higma Medical Center shows video of a young-looking boy, clad in khaki green, moaning on a stretcher. Bloody bullet wounds riddle his body. "This boy is 16 years old; we tried to save him, but his injuries were too bad," the director told me. "He died later that day."
It is not just physical wounds that have affected the children of the revolution; the psychological trauma of this war is deep-seated and difficult to measure. "There are many children that are deeply traumatized," said Ismail Marjoub, 43, who is part of a group developing activities for children that distract them from the war around them. "My 3-year-old son refuses to sleep alone anymore; he stays in my bed every night. This is the same for many families."
"There is a 9-year-old in the suburb of Zawit al-Mahjoub that has not spoken for the last 45 days," said Marjoub. There are many rumors and conjecture in Misrata these days; what’s clear though is the toll the violence has taken on this city, particularly the suburbs, which have been the front lines of the war for months on end.
"Our children have become knowledgeable about all different types of weapons. They recognize them by the sound," said father of three Faraj el-Wakshi, who lives in the Misrata suburb of Suwawa. "Because this area has been shelled so many times, even the children have become wise to which side the rockets are coming from. We always move two walls away in the home."
Sitting in a school-turned-military-camp in Suwawa, the dull thuds of mortars in the distance, the fathers planned a children’s club for the weekend. "Teachers will lead the games for little ones. Those above 6 might look into numbers and the letters of the alphabet. We want to make them forget the sounds of artillery and the horrors of this war," said Wakshi.
In Misrata and in the rebel capital Benghazi in east Libya, schools have remained closed for the last three months. "The children have not been to school in nearly 95 days. They are dangerously behind on their studies," said Abdulla Ali, father of seven in Misrata.
In Benghazi, talks of reopening schools have been mired in fears of reprisals and attacks by Qaddafi’s forces. Loyalists from Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committees are still prowling Benghazi’s streets, seeking to create chaos, say residents. A bomb was found just in time last week, planted in the media center beside the rebel courthouse. Citizens fear that schools could be a target.
Children engage in play that imitates war. In the area immediately around the central square in Benghazi, the neighborhood kids have formed mock gangs. Every night, they group into squads armed with "weapons": plastic handguns, pieces of wood held together by string to form a Kalashnikov, sticks, balls wrapped in cloth to resemble hand grenades. They scamper around the neighborhood clucking the "tck-tck-tck" of machine-gun fire as they fall down dead.
It’s the innocent play of any schoolyard, but occasionally the weapons are real. After rebels took control of Benghazi, the katibas — Qaddafi’s heavy-duty military bases — were ransacked. Residents across the city grabbed machine guns, hand grenades, and Kalashnikovs from the stores. These munitions now sit in boxes in families’ homes. At night, the waters around the Benghazi promenade boom with exploding dynamite, tossed into the waves for fun by youths.
By day, central Benghazi is a playground, with a carnival atmosphere. Children squeal in delight as they slide and jump on inflatable castles. Candy sellers dish out sweets beside stands of revolution trinkets: "Free Libya" key rings, bracelets, hats, headbands, dresses, and fake money. Cheeks are painted in the now-familiar red, black, and green stripes of the new flag.
The women’s area of the square has become an arts-and-crafts center for kids. Youngsters paint on large pieces of white paper, as their parents and relatives look on fondly. But sometimes their smiles turn to sadness as they see what the children have drawn.
Plastered on the wall is a gallery of their paintings: rows of childish sketches denote graphic violence. Big, red, angry spots litter a scribbling of weapons mowing Qaddafi down. Among the ubiquitous paintings of the revolutionary flag are poignant paintings of loss. A stickman lays in a pool of blood as another hovers over with a gun. "Daddy" it reads above an arrow, pointing to the dead man.
Behind the central square, along the courthouse wall, is Benghazi’s unofficial rebel memorial. Plastered there are thousands of photos and posters of the men, women, and children who have died in and around Benghazi since the conflict began just over three months ago.
"There is not a family that has not been affected by this war," says Hoda Ali, 34, looking at the memorial. Her 5-year-old daughter looked up at her. "Qaddafi is a dog," she said. But the phrase was one of imitation, not understanding. War has little time to educate the children of the revolution.