Children in eastern Libya cope with horrors of war

AP News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2011 1:11 PM
Children in eastern Libya cope with horrors of war

One shows a Libyan soldier in a green uniform killing a pro-democracy demonstrator. Another depicts bloodied body parts outside a pickup truck destroyed by NATO aircraft. A third _ a dead fighter's casket draped in a red, black and green rebel flag.

Twelve-year-old Leena al-Bishari's colorful drawings provide a glimpse of Libya's violent uprising against Moammar Gadhafi through the eyes of a child.

These drawings and others like them on display at a grade school in Benghazi, the de facto capital of rebel-held eastern Libya, illustrate the psychological toll that more than two months of fighting has had on Libya's children, said volunteers who recently set up a program at the school to help kids deal with the war.

"The psychological effect has come from sitting with their family all day and watching news of shelling and killing on television," said Mohammed al-Ghaziri, a 38-year-old businessman and father of two who helped launch the program. "This creates a sense of fear because they see how their parents react."

Benghazi was at risk of being overrun by Gadhafi's forces in March before NATO aircraft pulverized tanks that would have devastated the city. Many cities in western Libya, which is mainly controlled by Gadhafi, have fared even worse: Thousands have reportedly been killed.

Children in Benghazi have had little else to do other than soak in the painful realities of war because schools have remained closed since the revolution started in mid-February, and many parents have avoided letting their kids play outside for fear they may be hurt by random gunfire, said al-Ghaziri.

Officials are reluctant to reopen the schools before Gadhafi steps down because many teachers and older students are volunteering as part of the rebellion, said Hana el-Gallal, who is responsible for the education sector in Benghazi.

In the meantime, al-Ghaziri and other residents of Benghazi's Al-Leithi neighborhood decided to set up a program at one of the local public schools where children could come draw, sing and play.

"We want the children to forget about the war and try to live a normal life," said Asma al-Sedawi, an 18-year-old English student who is volunteering as an art teacher. "We started this place so children could feel like they are in another country, another world."

The program started Saturday with about 100 students from the ages of three to 14 and has already more than doubled in size, said al-Ghaziri. There is one other program like it in a neighborhood in downtown Benghazi, and four more should start soon in other parts of the city, he said.

One of al-Sedawi's pupils is 12-year-old Leena, whose soft-spoken nature contrasts with the violent images in her drawings. The young girl said they show "the crimes of Gadhafi killing his own people."

"I'm really sad that we can't go to school, but I'm OK with it because we did this to get rid of Gadhafi and have a better life," said Leena, dressed in a white headscarf, black button-down jacket and jeans.

When many of the children first arrived at the program _ which runs three hours a day, six days a week _ they simply scribbled violently using dark colors like black and brown, said al-Sedawi. Many have moved on to draw more benign images of things like rebel flags, boats and flowers, she said.

The program also encourages kids to play soccer and engage in other healthy physical activity, which has also been affected by the fighting.

"When the kids first came, I noticed many of them talking about weapons and playing games that mimic war," said Tarek al-Mahjub, a 29-year-old physical education teacher who is volunteering with the program. "Hopefully we can get them back to their normal state."

As al-Mahjub spoke, dozens of children filled the school's courtyard, some racing after each other in games of tag, others shouting a mix of rhymes and patriotic chants.

"Libya is free! Gadhafi go away!" shouted one group of girls between the ages of nine and 11.

"Misrata and Benghazi are brothers!" shouted a group of the youngest children, referring to a western city that has been besieged by Gadhafi's forces for over two months.

The kids were led by a young volunteer blowing a green whistle. A few of them wore T-shirts, hats and scarves with rebel flags on them. But most were dressed like children in any Western country. One girl had a pink backpack that was far too big for her. Another had a blue knapsack with a brown stuffed bear sewn on the back.

"I was sad when school closed, but now that this program has opened, it has cheered me up," said 11-year-old Abdel-Rahim Mohammed as he took a break from running around with the other kids.

Other children have been more severely affected. Khadija Mufta Hassy, one of the leaders of the program, said her sister-in-law's 8-year-old son wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and feels so ill at times that he vomits.

"He still refuses to come out of the house," said Hassy. "I try to convince him, but he doesn't trust anybody."

Al-Ghaziri, the program's founder, worries they won't be able to help children fully cope with what they have seen and experienced unless they can enlist the help of psychiatrists. They've ben unable to do that so far.

"We bring them here so they can play like normal children," said al-Ghaziri. "But if we want to deal fully with their psychological problems, we need experts."