Following the death of Gaddafi, many Libyan families are preparing to return home. Anna Birawi reflects on her experiences during the revolution, retelling the stories of families and children who fled to Tunisia.
Bearing the weight of life and death, of homes destroyed and families ripped asunder by rape and torture, this could only be but far from a simple exchange of words. We had just arrived at the airport of a small Tunisian port town, close to Libya’s western border, when the unpleasant whispers began to echo through the cracks of an otherwise dignified community: “Long live Gaddafi”. As seven young women from the UK, our revolutionary spirits soared high as the free Libyan flag shone from our wristbands and broaches. Unreservedly, we attempted to silence the faceless whispers that accompanied us on our short walk to the car: “Long live the revolution”.
We had watched the tragedies in Libya unfold from behind a computer screen, in the comfort of our own homes and surrounded by those we love. Muammar Gaddafi was a violent dictator whose wrath we were ultimately safe from and so, admittedly, our hearts were somewhat distant from the reality that lay behind our words. Nevertheless, at that moment in time, we chose to wear a uniform in honour of our freedom fighters, to speak words of revolution in their absence and to advocate a freedom that was and still is long overdue.
We had set off from London the previous morning with the intention of spending two to three weeks along the Tunisian-Libyan border, supporting those Libyans who had been forced to flee their country in search of refuge. Our time was to be divided between teaching in a local school, temporarily allocated to Libyan children, and distributing aid in each of the refugee camps located along the border. We were to work under the supervision of Wafa Relief, a UK-based charity which has had a heavy presence in Tunisia since the Libyan revolution began. After our brief encounter, we packed our bags into the boot of our car and drove to what would become our beloved Tunisian home.
On the morning of our first day in school we sat down for breakfast in our new home: a flat within a block occupied entirely by Libyan refugees. As we ate our eggs, bread and tuna, an undercurrent of apprehension hung in the air. You see, our revolutionary spirits had emerged in England, far from the lands of revolution, and although defiantly dedicated, they were embarking upon a rapid period of growth. Insecurity was a given. We were unsure of our ability to attend to three hundred traumatised children, many of whom had been orphaned or sent out of Libya without their immediate families. How were we going to interact with children who had witnessed things that we could never imagine, who had been dragged away from everything they had ever known in no more than the blink of an eye?
I sat and imagined us as the strangers, the foreigners, those who did not really care, let alone understand, and the children as angry, withdrawn, and unwelcoming. Yet upon entering the school gates on that unbearably hot morning, I quickly realised that the children were simply children, nothing more and nothing less. In every war on earth and throughout every era, there are those whose hearts remain warm and whose innocence allows them to continue appreciating the beautifully deep content within each simple expression of love; the holding of ones hand, the wiping of ones tears or the smile of a well-known stranger. They are children. How could they have been anything but embracing?
We began attending the school every day from 9.30am until 2pm, teaching children aged between five and fifteen years old. Each day was manic, to say the least. Managing classes of forty children abruptly pulled from their normal routines proved to be a testing task and one that required a subtle reinstallation of discipline. Alas! We would have failed if not accompanied by our trusted friend: Play-Doh. He soon became our secret weapon, aiding us in our endeavour to control each class. It is amazing how Mr Play-Doh had all the children hypnotised! The joy in their faces certainly reawakened the child in me.
As the days passed relationships grew stronger. A beautiful young girl became my guiding light. Separated by a language barrier, this ten-year-old child showed me that silence often speaks a thousand words. Everywhere I went she followed, holding my hand. Everywhere I sat she sat, with her arm wrapped around me. Everywhere I stood she stood, offering me a seat.. She spoke loud and clear: her language was the language of love!
We organised several activities for the children, including arts and crafts, bead making, and origami. The children responded positively both to our presence and to the content of each lesson. They were outwardly happy; that is, unless the balloon supply ran low or the pink felt-tip disappeared. They were loud, excited, and often uncontrollable, but all in all they seemed like pretty healthy children, given their circumstances.
So why was a sharp feeling of uneasiness clinging to my heart? There was an unpleasant taste of dissatisfaction at the sight of hundreds of hand-drawn free Libyan flags or handmade beaded bracelets in the same three colours: red, black, and green. Why was I alarmed by the sound of the free Libyan National Anthem being sung repeatedly by children as young as five? Because this is where it all starts, I thought. With a nationalistic seed, that at present does not harm, but if nurtured and left to harvest can grow to the dangerous heights of a tribal mentality not too far from the one that Gaddafi based his ludicrous ideologies upon. This is a dangerous time and I cannot help but be pessimistic and wonder whether affiliation and love for a flag can at all help the situation. Should we not be gathered together under a set of universal principles that transcend all worldly divides, rather than the red, black and green haze that seems to be leading the way to a new Libya? Islam, after all, is colour blind. I looked down at my wristband and felt that perhaps I should have been more careful in my choice of attire.
Hot, dry and isolated. Three words that best describe the refugee camps situated in the deserts along the border. We spent several days here distributing essential toiletries to women and families and on the odd occasion conducting children’s activities. Life in the camps was much different to life in the Tunisian town and this became apparent as soon as we entered the campgrounds. Red faces, scorned by the heat, peered up at us with excitement. Their skin was broken and burnt from the sun and their feet had become hardened from the earth’s natural touch. Many children had left the school in the town under the impression that they were returning to Libya. We now realised that they were not going home; their families could simply not afford accommodation any longer. Consequently, this was their new home: a tent on the safe side of the freedom-fighting mountains. The camps were predominately female as the men stayed behind in Libya to fight. As such, the women were made up of those who knew nothing of their husband’s, brother’s, or father’s fate and those who were knowingly and unknowingly widowed.
We met with several young women in the camp who had left Libya in the midst of their studies. One was set to become a dentist, the other a linguist. I imagined what it would be like if I had had to leave my studies, my home, and my family. By the will of God, these girls were strong.
We became very close to a young girl called Fatema. She had been with us at the school and had been amongst those who thought they were returning to Libya. Fatema was one of six girls and had lost her father before fleeing to Tunisia. Her mother was suffering from diabetes and, in all honesty, could barely cope. Fatema would write us poetry everyday and although I could not understand her, she insisted on talking to me for hours on end. I took the huge smile on her face as an indication of goodness; whatever it was she was saying it was certainly filled with love!
On our final visit to the camp our goodbye was heart wrenching. The tears that streamed from her eyes were like droplets of mercy in the heat of the desert. We gave her a piece of paper with our numbers scrawled across it and we still await her call.
Staring up at the mountains bordering Libya’s western edge we were reminded of how insignificant we really are. Staring into the eyes of a mother widowed and left homeless we were reminded of the gratitude we almost always forget to convey. Muammar Gaddafi may try but he, and those like him, will always fail. For every human being was born free and every human being will die free.