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LIBYA: New Chapter Opens After Gaddafi

TRIPOLI, Sep 6 2011 (IPS) - Libyan children will go back to school without Muammar Gaddafi’s ubiquitous presence, despite a lack of new books.

Back to school, happily. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

Back to school, happily. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

“We know the challenges ahead will be massive but I’ve never been so happy at the beginning of the school term,” primary school teacher Ahlam Saadi tells IPS. “I can hardly wait to teach in freedom,” adds the 35-year-old from Tripoli.

Staff at Shoala Primary School in Tripoli’s Dahra district greet one another emotionally; the school is five minutes walk from the capital’s main Martyrs’ square. Colleagues hug each other, and many are in tears. Celebrations by teachers outside the school have the feel of weddings.

As the school term begins, teachers sit down to agree schedules and take administrative decisions. But the first decision has been taken unanimously before anyone set foot inside the building.

“We’ve decided to rename our school ‘Ayman Tuman’ in the memory of our colleague’s dead son,” says Salwah Talah. She has almost lost her voice after a massive demonstration by women at Martyrs’ Square the previous night. The Arabic teacher introduces us to Zeynab Tuman, the mother of the 22-year-old who was killed.

“Ayman was shot by the Qatiba – local militia loyal to Gaddafi – after the evening prayers on Feb. 20,” Zeynab recalls. “He had also been a student here.” The school, and people in the city, remember Ayman as “Tripoli’s first martyr”.

Through the tragedy of the loss, the 50-year-old teacher says she “couldn’t be happier” about the renaming of the school.

The 15 women teachers – all dressed in black and wearing colourful scarves – finally step into the building. Some are missing, and teachers say they won’t resume classes this year and, very likely, never again. Not at Ayman Tuman Primary School.

“The teachers of ‘Education for the Yamahiria’ – the subject through which Libyan children have been indoctrinated for the last four decades – obviously won’t come back,” says school manager Jamal Tabi. “Needless to say, all of them were loyal to Gaddafi, and some even joined the Qatiba.”

Tabi takes us on a tour of the school. The most eloquent change is the removal of Gaddafi’s portrait.

“It was mandatory to place it in front of you, never behind,” Tabi recalls. Now, the large tricolour flag of the rebels has been spread at the site. It also helps cover the bullet holes on the window behind.

Tabi has been preparing to receive rebel general Ali Ashur, who visited the school with half a dozen armed men escorting.

“We’ve been touring the schools around the city to make sure security is not an issue any more,” Gen. Ashur tells IPS. Paradoxically enough, the general wearing camouflage fatigues still sporting the ousted regime’s insignia on his shoulders.

“We all do until Benghazi gives us the new uniform,” says the officer.

Every reminder of the previous regime has been removed in Ayman Tuman: no more portraits of the leader or green flags of the Yamahiria – a word invented by Gaddafi meaning “the republic of the masses”. The last two copies of Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ are given away to visitors as souvenirs.

Further stages in the transformation process will be harder to carry out. It’s just about two weeks since the rebels took over the country’s capital, and teachers have hardly had any time to adapt the school material to the new times.

“Subjects such as maths or chemistry do not pose any risk but we will have to watch with the history books,” says Tabi. New books being printed in Behghazi should arrive in less than a month, he adds.

Several offices, including the school library, were ransacked by Gaddafi’s troops in violent searches before the city fell.

“Many of our teachers were suspected to have links with the rebels, and they were looking for any sort of incriminatory documents,” 45-year-old teacher Kamila Ashur tells IPS, speaking amid the rubble at the school’s main door. She says she couldn’t finish teaching through the term because she had to go underground when the police started looking for her at her district in Suq al-Yuma in north-east Tripoli.

When asked how she will teach who Gaddafi was, the history teacher goes ballistic.

“How am I going to explain my students who was Gaddafi? I’ll tell them about that horrible regime, the detentions, the tortures…I’ll tell them that his ideas weren’t good for any human being,” says Ashur, waving a makeshift rebel flag with the half moon and star painted in tipex.

“I’m not only teaching history, I’m also making it.”

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