Rose Abdulbasit is getting ready for another day of school. More precisely, it’s just pre-school, but that hasn’t stopped the energetic five-year-old from taking her education as seriously as her older siblings. She can recite the names of colours and proudly shows off the crafts that she’s worked on. In most places around the world, this is just another part of everyday life. But in Benghazi, the opening of educational institutions is another indicator that the war-torn city is recuperating.
It was six months ago that the final phase of Operation Dignity – a military campaign against extremists and militia groups– was launched in Benghazi. Civilian life was put to a halt as fighting raged in most districts across the city, leading to widespread destruction and the displacement of thousands.
Benghazi's students are returning to school
Since that time, the army has secured most of the city, and signs of life have been reappearing. Schools and universities, which have been closed for months, are now trying to determine the best way forward to salvage what’s left of the school year. So far, around 100 primary and secondary schools have opened their doors, and the curriculum has been made available to the parents who’d prefer to homeschool their children. Much of these efforts have been taken by the Nawerni (Enlighten Me) campaign, an education initiative started by independent activists. The University of Benghazi is also studying the possibility of resuming classes and holding exams.
Group picture of the participants of the children's marathon
There has also been a renewal of civil society work in Benghazi. While the majority of activities are primarily focused on humanitarian assistance and charity work, there’s been a surge in civic engagement projects, particularly in relation to the constitution. A campaign entitled ‘Your Constitution Your Way’(دستورك بجوك)was recently launched by the Youth Network for Constitutional Changes with the aim of increasing awareness on the constitution drafting process, and the Supreme Council of Women has been working on gaining constitutional recognition. Other activities in the city include a book fair organized by the Book Lovers’ group, a children’s marathon and celebrations for World Traffic Day.
Visitors perusing the selection of books at the book fair
Much of these efforts are taken by the most active component of Benghazi’s civil society, its youth. I spoke to some of the young activists in the city on how the war has affected their work and their personal lives. “The most difficult thing is seeing young people getting killed,” said one female youth activist. “The war has definitely had a negative effect on me, but the longer it goes on, the more resolute it makes me to change [this situation]. Many of us have seen the conflict as a chance to improve ourselves, and it has made us more determined to act. We can rebuild, and this is an opportunity to build a better Benghazi.”
Civil society in Benghazi was not spared from the violence and assassinations that plagued the city for the past few years, and the murder of outspoken activists like Salwa Bughagis and Tawfik Bensaud led many others to flee or stop their work altogether. “There was a point in my life when I felt that I was faced with the decision of leaving the city or dying,” one humanitarian activist told me. “2014 was a very difficult year for me. Friends and family members were killed, and others faced attempted kidnappings. It felt like a psychological war. But with support [from my community], I made the decision to stay.”
“Benghazi is the city that always suffers the most,” he continued, “but it always improves. The city is better now than it was a year ago, and the resolve to rebuild is there. But what I feel we must learn first is how to love and accept one another.”
While life in Benghazi has improved considerably, it is still a far cry from normalcy. Residents of the city still face numerous difficulties. Cooking gas is hard to come by, and movement within the city is still limited due to the many barricaded roads. While checkpoints have been set up near the ‘frontline’ areas to keep the fighting contained, rockets have still been falling on residential and public areas. Displaced families, especially those who have been placed in public schools, are anxiously waiting for the day when they can go back to their homes, and this anxiety grows as the month of Ramadan looms closer. Alongside the physical damage is the psychological harm, as the war has had a detrimental mental effect on those who’ve lived through it. Throughout the city, there is a perceptible restlessness as people wait for the city to be officially ‘liberated’ by the army.
For now, progress is being measured by the small improvements. Residents have taken to social media to chronicle Benghazi’s healing process, using the hashtag #بنغازي_تتعافي (#BenghaziRecovers). The sight of policemen and traffic patrol - who were once under threat by hostile militia groups - now openly patrolling the streets, is a significant indication for many that Benghazi’s recovery is going in the right direction. For others, it’s living without the daily assassinations that highlight the change that the war has brought. And for Rose and her classmates, it’s enough to just be going back to school.
[Credit: Photographs taken by Fadellulah Bujwary]