Thursday, March 10, 2011
Students in Revolutionary Tripoli
NYT Photo credit Moises Saman
Qaddafi Reaches Into Schools but Some Youths Elude His Grasp
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: March 10, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — The crackdown by the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi against the rebels trying to unseat him has extended even into Tripoli’s schools, where students talk about visits from military officers warning them to watch only state television, payments of 200 Libyan dinars a day to attend pro-Qaddafi rallies and their fears that confiding in the wrong friend may mean interrogation by the secret police.
“I can give you a certainty that there was killing,” whispered a 14-year-old girl at a Tripoli school, saying anxiously that she could not name the killers, “but I think you know.”
“I think I am going to jail for that,” she added.
On a government-sponsored tour of a Tripoli school and other trips for a small group of foreign journalists, she and other students braved watchful teachers and official tour guides to explain that as schools here have reopened — some of them after a hiatus of three weeks — the government’s violent crackdown on the revolt has already left a deep impression on Libyan children and young adults. And like much of the Middle East, Libya is a nation of young adults: a third of the population is under 15 years old and 70 percent is under 35.
The few students who talked openly described their horror at the violence and the sleepless nights they had endured trying to forget about the eruptions of gunfire. A 17-year-old boy said the military had detained his 7-year-old neighbor at a protest and then deposited him a week later at a Tripoli soccer stadium; his father and teenage brother are still missing.
“It is terrifying,” the 17-year-old said. The names of the students were withheld to protect them from retaliation.
But they also expressed a remarkable optimism about the future. The 14-year-old girl, for example, said she wanted to make “a big statement” — a rebuttal to Colonel Qaddafi’s warnings that tribal strife would mire the country in an intractable civil war pitting western Tripoli against the rebels’ eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
“I, for myself, I wouldn’t want a single dude from Benghazi to die,” she said, speaking in English. “I even cried for them. We are really, really close to each other.”
“The problem,” she said, “is that some of the people are sold by money and they go against their own people.
“I am sure people are watching and I may be, like, dead or something, but I shouldn’t lie at this point, because there are a lot of lives at stake.”
The school’s principal tried to interrupt the girl’s account of her anxiety. “We were afraid of the news from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya only, but here in Tripoli there was no problem, there was no problem at all, believe me,” the principal said. “They are telling lies, all the news are lies.”
But the girl said she and her friends were not afraid of the international media. (She said she had learned English mainly from American movies — Angelina Jolie is a favorite.)
The state news channel “is always green and talking about the same thing, ‘Libya is fine, Libya is fine,’ ” she said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi’s representative color. “I got it, so I don’t watch that anymore.”
The 17-year-old boy, forced to wear a military uniform to school, said he and his friends rolled their eyes at the officer who visited their school to warn them about the evils of the pan-Arab television channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. “We have eyes and we can see what we want,” he said.
The students said that classes had still not fully resumed since schools shut down around Feb. 17, when the unrest that started in Benghazi broke out in Tripoli, the capital. Students at one Tripoli school said only about half of the students had returned, because many families had fled to the safety of their hometowns and tribes. At a school in a small town nearby, students said that the teachers no longer bothered to teach and that they mainly talked about the unrest.
“Maybe because the teachers are scared, too,” he said. “Only one teacher is with the regime — everyone else is against it.”
When the school reopened, “Our head teacher told us, ‘There is nothing going on, don’t be scared, just study hard,’ ” the student said. “No one believed him.”
He said only two students in his school supported the government, naming two girls whose fathers, he said, worked in the administration. His sister, he said, was caught talking to a journalist about her views and was taken to the principal’s office. “They told her they would take marks off, she might go to prison and her family might go to prison as well,” he said.
He said that a friend who opposes Colonel Qaddafi decided to take the 200 Libyan dinars, or about $162, to spend the day at a pro-Qaddafi rally. “He doesn’t even like Muammar el-Qaddafi, but he got 200 dinars and he said, ‘I am going every day,’ ” the student said. “It is shameful.”
The 14-year-old girl said of other students, “Some of them are scared, some of them really want Muammar, which is scary.” She interrupted herself — “I should go to jail for that!” — before adding that after 40 years some older people “just can’t see anybody else but Muammar.”
After the uprising started things went “upside down” in Tripoli, she said, with rioting in the streets.
In those first weeks, she said, she saw what she believed to be mercenaries from other African countries near her house. “People hired to kill people for money,” she said. “We were really scared that day. We had to close the door and lock it up.”
For more than a week, her parents would not let her go outside. “I am a girl and I am still a kid,” she said, “and my mother is too scared of what they hear about all the death cases around us.”
A family friend reported that there had been “some killing incidents” after protesters left Friday Prayer services at mosques in neighborhoods around the city, she said. Then, last Saturday, her parents let her visit a friend near the Feshloom neighborhood, where security forces had cracked down on a protest.
“She told me there were big shootings the past scary week when things went upside down,” she said of her friend. “Her family got really scared and even started to save resources for the bad times.” Her own father had started stocking away provisions as well — “the main stuff, like macaroni, Libyans’ favorite food.”
By now the other students in the school had erupted into raucous chants about their love for Colonel Qaddafi, replicating the scene that greets foreign journalists everywhere in Tripoli. The student said her biggest problem was that she had missed three weeks of classes, but faced the same exam date. But as for the country, she said, “The problems in Libya are very well known.” In a country rich with oil, many are still poor, and the school system lags. “A lot of cheating and mixed-up stuff, you give money and they give you scores,” she said.
And, she said, she worried about what might happen on Friday, when Libyans again come together for prayers. “It is really calm now,” she said, “but on Friday it may get upside down again.”