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In Libya's Shifting Sands, Kids Try To Find Their Way

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 5, 2012 10:25 pm

In a stretch of sandy wasteland, Hisham Sadowi, 12, smacks a tee shot across a makeshift golf course in Benghazi, Libya.

On this course with no grass, local rules allowed him to place the ball on a little square of artificial turf he carries around.

Hisham dreams of becoming a professional golfer, and he stops briefly to speak to us. We asked him who his favorite golfer is.

"Tiger Woods," he exclaims.

After a brief discussion, he is once again focused on his round — oblivious to the heavily armed militias that still jostle for power in Libya, and that were roaming his city that very afternoon.

Some people say golf is a microcosm of life, and here, it was a microcosm of Libya: a talented kid in a striped shirt, improvising his way across the sand.

Sampling Student Opinion Across Libya

Most Libyans are under 25, and they just lived through a nasty civil war.

To assess their prospects, we met students in schools as we drove through the nation, part of our Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa.

In some schools, we found optimism.

"We can dream and actually make our dream come true in Libya," says Alaa Barakat. The key words for Barakat are: "in Libya."

Before the revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi last year, his dreams involved leaving Libya.

We met him at Benghazi University, where students wear Western-style clothes, backpacks over their shoulders.

Alaa's classmate Amr Zubehi is inspired by a one-time college student in America.

"I want to make a new idea like a Facebook," he says, a reference to Mark Zuckerberg, who established the social-networking site while at Harvard. "Something that makes a difference in the world."

Possibilities And Challenges

It's hard for a visitor to miss Libya's possibilities. Coastal cities curl comfortably around their harbors, and olive groves break up the desert between. Beaches run down to the Mediterranean, which glitters like a great bowl of sapphires. Libyan oil flows into tankers offshore.

Seizing the future, though, requires Libya's young people to recalibrate the past, as we learned several hundred miles west of Benghazi, at the Martyrs of Libya School in the city of Khums.

We ask teenage girls in a schoolyard if they remember the war.

"Yes, yes, yes," they say.

And did you have relatives who were involved in the fighting also?

"Yes, yes," they say.

The winners of that revolution have now changed the school curriculum. History, in particular, is very different from what the girls studied just last year.

All the girls wear a uniform consisting of a white headscarf and a gray cloak that to Western eyes resembles a raincoat.

Last year's class was all about Gadhafi's achievements — like a famous irrigation project, the girls say.

The girls call it the history of one man. And the old textbook symbolizes the way that even children were co-opted by Gadhafi's regime.

But by the end of this school year, that text was replaced. The new book doesn't mention Gadhafi's rule until the final pages, and then tells of corruption and massacres.

So their books have changed. But it may be harder for students to absorb their own past experiences.

The War's Toll

Across a 600-mile stretch of Libya, every group of students we met had relatives or friends killed in the revolution.

At a school in the city of Misrata, you feel the weight of the recent past as soon as you walk through the door. Photos of dead community members hang on the wall.

In a computer class, we met Enass Abu Bakr, who was about to turn 15.

She said she loves Justin Bieber, that she longs to study in South Korea, and that her uncle fought in the war.

He was killed on May 18 of last year, she says. "They said someone shot him from the roof of a building. The bullet came into his face, in his cheek, and he died," she adds.

Misrata kids can at least reassure themselves that their side won the war. That's a reassurance that's not available down the road, in a city that definitely lost.

Changes In Gadhafi's Hometown

At a high school in Sirte, Gadhafi's home city, loyalists fought until their leader was killed here in October.

Since then, school administrators have made changes. When boys assemble in the concrete schoolyard, an English-language revolutionary rap blasts over the speakers.

Blast holes in the school walls have been repaired, but apartment buildings next door stand in ruins.

Inside, we met a group of six boys in their late teens. Three come from families that favored Gadhafi, and three come from families that opposed him.

One of the students, Ramadan Turfia, looks a lot like a young Moammar Gadhafi, with the same brilliant smile, the same mass of black hair.

He's a member of Gadhafi's tribe, and the other students tease him by calling him "bushif shufa," roughly "father curly hair," a nickname of the dead leader.

"I'm from the Gadhafi tribe and he's a part of the tribe, and I love him," he says.

Asked if he loves anything Gadhafi did, Ramadan begins reciting achievements chronicled in the old history textbooks.

Four of Ramadan's classmates were killed fighting to defend their leader.

A Vice Principal In Camouflage Gear

The vice principal in this school is a former rebel fighter, who has caught some students defacing the Libyan flag that the new government put on the textbooks.

Hoping to impose discipline, he's been walking the halls in a camouflage uniform, while carrying a set of handcuffs.

He confiscated a cellphone, he says, and now he has to smash it because the phone contains pro-Gadhafi songs and videos.

The phone came from one of the students talking with us. That student, Thea Yusuf, had a cousin who rode in the convoy in which Gadhafi was killed.

An image inside Thea's phone shows his cousin in rebel custody, just before he was killed. To Thea, this is proof his cousin was executed by the rebels.

Thea insists his family wants neither justice nor revenge, though a tear comes to his eye as he speaks.

The vice principal, who is standing nearby, is even moved. He ends up returning the phone to Thea, along with the pro-Gadhafi images saved inside.

Today, large stretches of Sirte are a wasteland, though the Mediterranean still glistens just outside the school, and beach sand drifts down the streets.

When we asked the kids in this school about their dreams for the future, their words were vague and faint.

What's vivid for them is the past, like the images in that student's phone.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Life is going on in war-torn Libya. In Benghazi, one of the cities where Libyans started a drive for freedom, we encountered Hisham Sadowi hitting a drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF BALL BEING HIT)

INSKEEP: He chased that tee shot across a makeshift golf course: a stretch of sandy wasteland. He's 12 years old.

Looks like he's got a seven iron, about 150 yards to the green, yellow flag on that pile of sand over there by the highway.

On this course with no grass, local rules allowed him to position the ball on a little square of artificial turf he carried around.

Do you have a favorite golfer among the golfers in the world?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

HISHAM SADOWI: Tiger Woods.

INSKEEP: Tiger Woods.

Hisham dreams of turning pro. And after a brief talk, he hurried on, focused on his match and oblivious to the heavily armed militias that still jostle for power in Libya and that were roaming his city that very afternoon.

Oh, a beautiful little wedge shot. Oh, a little long, though. It's going to get really tricky from there.

People say golf is a microcosm of life, and here was a microcosm of Libya: a talented kid in a striped shirt, improvising his way across the sand. Most of this nation is under 25 years old. All those young people just lived through a nasty civil war. To assess their prospects, we met students in schools across the nation during MORNING EDITION's recent Revolutionary Road Trip. In some schools, we found optimism.

ALLAH BARAKAT: We can dream and actually do - make our dream come true in Libya.

INSKEEP: The key words for Allah Barakat are: in Libya. Before the revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, his dreams involved leaving Libya. We met him at Benghazi University, where students wear Western-style clothes, backpacks over their shoulders. Allah's classmate Amr Zubehi is inspired by a one-time college student in America.

AMR ZUBEHI: I want to make a new idea, like a Facebook, something makes a difference in the world.

INSKEEP: The same way that Mark Zuckerberg in the United States, as a college student...

ZUBEHI: Yeah, but not social network.

INSKEEP: You want it to be your own idea?

ZUBEHI: Yes, in Libya.

INSKEEP: In Libya. It's hard for a visitor to miss Libya's possibilities. Coastal cities curl comfortably around their harbors, and olive groves break up the desert between. Beaches run down to the Mediterranean, which glitters like a great bowl of sapphires. Libyan oil flows into tankers offshore.

Seizing the future, though, requires Libya's young people to recalibrate the past, as we learned several hundred miles west of Benghazi at the Martyrs of Libya School.

Do you remember the war?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes. Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: The teenage girls in this schoolyard live in the city of Khums.

And did you have relatives who were involved in the fighting, also?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: You're raising hands. You did. Your father fought.

The winners of that revolution have now changed the school curriculum. History, in particular, is very different from what the Martyrs of Libya girls studied just last year.

What do you remember from last year when you studied history, Isra?

ISRA: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Isra is 15. Like every girl in the schoolyard, she wears a uniform: a white headscarf and a gray cloak that, to Western eyes, resembles a raincoat. Last year's class was all about Gadhafi's achievements, like a famous irrigation project.

Oh, the Great Man River project. OK. The water project. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The African opinion.

INSKEEP: The African - oh, how Africans love Gadhafi.

The girls call it the history of one man, and the old textbook symbolized the way that even children were co-opted by Gadhafi's regime. But by the end of this school year, that text was replaced.

I'm just flipping through, here.

The new book doesn't mention Gadhafi's rule until the final pages, and then tells of corruption and atrocities.

Oh, we have photos in this one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So this guy, his name is Sadek Al-Shuwehdy, and Gadhafi hanged him in Benghazi 1984 on the court - in the basketball court.

INSKEEP: So the history books have changed, but it may be harder for students to absorb their own past experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

INSKEEP: Across a 600-mile stretch of Libya, every group of students we met had relatives or friends killed in the revolution. At a school in the city of Misrata, you feel the weight of the recent past as soon as you walk in the door. Photos of dead community members hang on the wall.

In a computer class, we met Enass Abu Bakr, who was about to turn 15. She said she loves Justin Bieber, that she longs to study in South Korea, and also that her uncle fought in the war.

ENASS ABU BAKR: Eighteenth of May, my uncle died.

INSKEEP: Did you hear the story of how he died?

BAKR: They said, like, someone shoot him from a roof, from the building.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm. A sniper. Is that the...

BAKR: Yeah, sniper. The bullet came into his face in his cheek, and he died.

INSKEEP: Misrata kids can at least reassure themselves that their side won the war - reassurance that is not available down the road in a city that definitely lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Rapping) I can't shut my eyes. I can't go to sleep. I can't even cry. I'm all out of tears.

INSKEEP: We've moved now to a high school in Sirte, the home city of Moammar Gadhafi, where Gadhafi loyalists fought until their leader was killed here in October. Since then, school administrators have made changes. When boys assemble in the concrete schoolyard, an English-language revolutionary rap blasts over the speakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Rapping) I live for my people, glad for liberation. Pray for (unintelligible) emancipation and they know...

INSKEEP: Blast holes in the school walls have been repaired, but apartment buildings next door stand in ruins. Inside the school, we met a group of boys in their late teens, half of whom come from families that favored Gadhafi.

Three and three, is that right? Do you guys accept that, three of you were with the revolution and three against?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: They nod yes. One of the students, Ramadan Turfia, looks a lot like a young Moammar Gadhafi: same brilliant smile, same mass of black hair. He's a member of Gadhafi's tribe, and the other students tease him by calling him bushif shufa, roughly Father Curly Hair, a nickname of the dead leader.

RAMADAN TURFIA: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

TURFIA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I'm from Gaddafi tribe and he's a part of the tribe, and I love him.

INSKEEP: You love him still?

TURFIA: (Foreign language spoken) Yes.

INSKEEP: Asked if he loves anything Gadhafi did, Turfia begins reciting achievements chronicled in the old history textbooks, like the Great Man River Project. Four of Turfia's classmates were killed fighting to defend their leader.

The vice principal in this school is a former rebel fighter, who has caught some students defacing the Libyan flag that the new government put on the new textbooks. Hoping to impose discipline, he's been walking the halls in a camouflage uniform, while carrying a set of handcuffs.

ABDEL MUTALEB SUKER: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I confiscated this phone, he says. Now I have to smash it. The student's phone contained pro-Gadhafi songs and videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The phone came from one of the students talking with us. That student, Thea Yusuf, had a cousin who rode in the convoy in which Gadhafi was killed. An image inside Yusuf's phone shows his cousin in rebel custody, just before he also was killed.

So there's no doubt. It wasn't that he was killed in fighting, he was executed.

THEA YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken) Yeah, after they caught him.

INSKEEP: Thea Yusuf insists his family wants neither justice nor revenge, though a tear comes to his eye as he speaks. The vice principal in the combat uniform is standing nearby, and even he's moved. He ends up returning the phone he confiscated from Yusuf, along with the pro-Gadhafi images saved inside.

What's the video we're looking at now?

YUSUF: Sirte. Sirte, before the war.

INSKEEP: This is like a promotional video for Sirte before the war.

YUSUF: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

INSKEEP: Lights everywhere in the trees, expensive cars going around, the green Libyan flag flying.

Today, large stretches of Sirte are a wasteland, though the Mediterranean still glistens just outside the school, and beach sand drifts down the streets.

When we asked the kids in this school about their dreams for the future, their words were vague and faint. What's vivid for them is the past - like the images in that student's phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now at the start of that story, we heard Libyan kids on golf course made of sand. You can see what that looks like. Watch an audio slide show of another world from Libya's wars at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.