At a glance: Libya

Libya’s other crisis: 2 million children at physical and emotional risk as conflict drags on

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
Faraj, 5, watches as other children play in Benghazi, Libya.

By Christopher Tidey

BENGAZHI, Libya, 12 July 2011 – After months of media coverage of the conflict in Libya, one could be forgiven for thinking that the country is devoid of children. The vast majority of images in the media feature soldiers on the front lines, a defiant Muammar Gaddafi, NATO fighter jets streaking across the skies, and queues of mostly male migrant workers crossing the borders into Tunisia and Egypt.

Before I left for Benghazi, a colleague asked me sarcastically why I was going to cover the crisis for UNICEF when it was clear from newspaper and television reports that there were no children in Libya anyway.

Of course, there are children in Libya. In fact, there are more than 2 million of them under the age of 18, accounting for roughly a third of the entire population. As the conflict drags into its fifth month, they are feeling its impact more deeply every day. This is undoubtedly a children’s crisis.

Children at risk

With most of Libya’s major cities and towns either now or previously embroiled in violent conflict, children have been greatly affected since the uprising began on 17 February.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
Children from a centre for displaced people in the Libyan coastal city of Al-Bayda wait for afternoon games to begin.

The most obvious threats to children are the weapons around them. Landmines and explosive remnants of war contaminate areas around Misrata, Ajdabiya and the Nafusa Mountains. Cities and towns are now awash in small arms from weapons caches that were opened following the start of the conflict.

These dangers cannot be overstated. When children come across these weapons, they sometimes collect them as trophies or for scrap metal, putting their lives at grave risk. Just three weeks ago, two boys aged 10 and 15 were injured by a grenade in the Ajdabiya area.

Psychological wounds

In some cases, the damage done to children by the conflict is not physical, but psychological. Many Libyan children who have been through traumatic experiences are now in urgent need of psycho-social support.

Parents at two displacement camps I visited recently, near the coastal city of Al-Bayda, told me stories of their young children’s near-constant nightmares and insomnia. In Benghazi, a three-year-old girl at a children’s recreation club burst into tears because she thought the camera hanging from my shoulder was a gun.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
Hassan (holding younger child), 11, talks about his desire to go back to school in Libya.

Experts agree that in addition to psycho-social support, a sense of normalcy should be restored to children’s lives as quickly as possible in such situations. One way to achieve normalcy is through the daily routine of school, but the formal education system in Libya has ground to a halt. Schools from Tripoli to Benghazi have been closed since the onset of the crisis.

One 11-year-old boy, Hassan, told me that he and his friends are desperate to return to the classroom. It is unclear when that will happen, however.

Child safety and well-being

As the conflict persists, UNICEF and its partners are working to secure the safety and well-being of Libyan children in various ways, including the following:

  • Engaging with the authorities in Benghazi to ensure that schools reopen on 5 September, as scheduled
  • Supporting children’s clubs in more than 125 schools in eastern Libya to provide children with a variety of recreational activities
  • Helping to facilitate mine-risk awareness workshops for children and families in areas contaminated with explosive remnants of war
  • Collaborating with authorities to maintain access to clean water
  • Sending urgently needed vaccines to besieged cities such as Misrata.

But these efforts are not nearly enough, given the heavy toll the crisis is taking on Libya’s children. Aid workers do not have access to the areas currently in conflict, and support from the international community is needed to help UNICEF and its partners on the ground expand their reach.

Children are the most vulnerable during humanitarian emergencies, and the conflict in Libya is no different – no matter what the images in the daily news might lead us to believe.


 

 

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