In battered Libya town, kids get a taste of normality

AP , Sunday 26 Jun 2011

A school in rebel-held central Misrata happily reopens to a whopping 250 students, but the childrens' new vocabulary includes Kalashnikov, mortar and rape

Libyan students are seen inside their class at the Ras Mouftah school in Misrata (Photo: AP)

A few weeks ago, Ras Mouftah Elementary School in central Misrata was just another public building abandoned in the fight for this Libyan city.

Now two dozen boys aged four – nine are watching as the rebel tricolor unfurls from the school flagpole. Hands on their hearts, they struggle to sing along to a tape recording of the rebel anthem.

Their backpacks are emblazoned with the words "Feb. 17 Revolution." Misrata, the port city jolted into the international headlines in Libya's civil war, is struggling to regain its balance, even as rockets continue to hit its centre daily and wounded rebels are brought in from the front lines a few miles away.

The craving for normality became evident as rebel control of Misrata solidified and parents in the neighbourhood around the Ras Mouftah School started thinking of ways to rebuild city life. The school principal, Souad Saffar, leaped into action.

"I took my car and went around to all the women I knew, urging them to get out and help me start up the school," she said.

It took a week to mop up the seven classrooms, set up the desks, and paint over the words "Libyan Jamahiriyah," the official term for the regime set up by Muammar Gaddafi that is now under rebel attack.

"I was really worried the project would fail, that parents would still be scared to let their kids out and that only five or six children would show up," Saffar said.

Instead, when it reopened, 250 children arrived. Unable to cope with such a large number, Saffar divided attendance by gender: girls one day, boys the next.

Each classroom consists of 18 to 20 kids and is named after a child killed in the war. Children paint various forms of the rebels' star-and-crescent flag.

The girls learn to stitch small pillows as gifts to families who lost relatives in the fighting. Scrawled on a blackboard in Arabic is "Free Libya, out with Gaddafi" But mainly, Saffar said, the school is a way for the children to play, meet their friends and act their age.

"Our goal was to allow the children to express their emotions about what they have just gone through," said Saffar. "They are allowed to run free in the playground, sing, play, draw; whatever helps them to forget." Shops are slowly opening, but most remain closed. In the mosques, the imams preach resistance and perseverance.

On Tripoli Street, scene of the fiercest fighting, all the buildings are pitted, blackened by shell fire or destroyed.

Teachers at Ras Mouftah said the children's behaviour reflects what they have been through: They are rougher with each other, and new words have crept into their vocabulary: Kalashnikov, mortar, rape.

"Instead of cartoons they are now watching the news. They can even distinguish the types of rockets that fly overhead," said Fatma Tuweilab, a volunteer at the school.

She said that instead of cops and robbers, the children play rebels and Gaddafi brigades.

"We teach them to feel pride for their revolution, but we remind them that violence has never been our way of life," said Tuweilab, 36.

The teachers find their work therapeutic.

"I go to bed so eager to wake up the next morning just so I can come here," said Awatif Taher, 37, a math teacher who volunteers her time at the school.

During the fighting, "Our front doors became front lines," said Taher. "The simplest bang of a door will set us off into hysterics. We are in real need of psychological help."

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