Taking the pulse of the revolution, Part One: With school closed during the war, Benghazi’s kids are learning emergency first aid

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

A boy with the Libyan opposition flag painted on his face learns how to make a splint

The names of all children mentioned in this post have been changed.

A version of this article is published on the website of Foreign Policy.


“What do you do in the event of a third-degree burn?” asks Dr. Randa Abidia.

“The hospital! Straight to the hospital!” the kids respond.

I’m sitting in the third row of a classroom at the Libyan International Medical University (LIMU) in Benghazi, next to ten girls and five boys. At the front of the room stand Randa, who is teaching a one-week course on first aid for children aged 9‒14, and her two assistants Maryam and Enas, who are students at LIMU. Today’s two-hour session is on burns.

This could be a classroom anywhere — most of the kids are paying attention, with one or two excitables at the front raising their hands at every prompt, and one or two squirmers fidgeting and chatting in the back. But these kids are here for an unusual reason: School has been closed since February 16, when the revolution got under way.

Dr. Randa Abidia teaches first aid to children in Benghazi. (This was her first course, in mid-March.)

Randa is dean of LIMU’S Faculty of Health Sciences. She and other staff and students at LIMU at volunteering to keep these kids busy — and to teach them first aid that could prove vital if they or their family members are wounded.

With the eastern front in Libya’s war hovering around Ajdabiyah, 160 km southwest of Benghazi and the last city protecting it from Gaddafi’s militias, renewed shelling and street fighting are a real possibility here. This city of 800,000, Libya’s second largest after Tripoli and the temporary capital of opposition-held Libya, has already seen fighting twice — in mid-February, when the revolution began, and in mid-March, when Gaddafi’s tanks were on its outskirts and hard-core Gaddafi supporters emerged from within the city [LINK TO “DARK PLACES” STORY], strafing at civilians with Kalashnikovs. It was Coalition air strikes that saved Benghazi then, forcing Gaddafi’s militias to retreat.

Randa divides the class into groups of three, pulls out a red pen, and draws a small circle on the hand of one member of each group. “You’ve just gotten a second-degree burn,” she explains. “Go treat it!”

The room becomes a beehive of activity. The kids shuffle off, rinsing the “wound” under cold water, packing it with gauze, and pretending to take their charges to the hospital.

Children in the LIMU program do art as well as first aid. The sign at upper left reads, "We are all devoted to the homeland."

Not much to do but sit at home and listen to gunfire


The kids are having a great time. They seem cheerful. After class, some of them stick around to talk to me about their experiences during the war.

“What’s it like at home now that there’s no school?” I ask.

“Boring,” says Ahmad, a chubby-cheeked 11-year-old. He’s sporting a red jacket bearing the logo of Al Ahli, Benghazi’s most popular soccer team.

“Yeah, boring,” agrees Maryam, a ten-year-old girl.

“Boring,” echoes Walid, 13. “I don’t see my friends anymore,” he says. Concerned about safety on the streets, parents are keeping their kids at home. “I have a lot of free time. But I’d rather be in school — I like learning.”

These kids are dealing with more than just boredom, though. One of the girls in this week’s group of students just lost a cousin to fighting in Brega — she was too sad to come to class today. “And in the group of kids I taught two weeks ago,” explains Randa, “one had a brother who was missing, another lost a cousin, and another had a relative who died in Gaddafi’s shelling.” The mother of the child who lost a cousin called Randa and asked her to give the kids time in class to talk and write about their lost loved ones, which they did.

Randa’s first-aid course for kids also includes a session on weapons — how to identify them and stay away from them. But Randa has found that after two months of war, the kids already know most of the weapons. Her husband, dentistry professor Ahmed El-Hejazi, notes that after less than two months of war, the children have already learned to identify weapons by sound. “They hear a tuk-tuk-tuk [he’s mimicking gunfire] and they say, ‘that’s a Kalashnikov,’ or ‘that’s a fourteen-point-five meem taa’” (a reference to a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun — meem taa is the Arabic acronym for “anti-aircraft”). “They hear an explosion and say, ‘that’s a hand grenade’ or ‘that’s a missile.’”

“Especially the boys,” Randa adds.

War is hard on kids, even if it doesn’t always show


While this week’s group of first-aid students may not have lost immediate family members, it’s clear that the war is stressful for them.

“My aunt, uncle, and cousin are in Tripoli,” says Amina, a ten-year-old girl with short hair. I’m worried about them. Especially my cousin — I really like him.”

“When I was at the Katibah [the military base in Benghazi that rebels stormed on February 20, liberating the city], I saw blood,” says Nadia, a 14-year-old girl with braces and a quiet confidence. “It was scary.”

Lina, 11, says, “I get scared when I hear bullets.” She has big eyes and is wearing a white headscarf with flowers embroidered on it. “My parents don’t tell me what’s going on. I keep asking them, but they don’t want to tell me because they don’t want me to worry. It makes me even more scared.”

Randa has seen a change in attitude between the group of kids she taught two weeks ago and this week’s group. “The first group were more optimistic,” she notes. In late March, the war was going well for the opposition, thanks to aggressive Coalition air strikes on the eastern front that allowed opposition forces to advance rapidly toward the strategically vital city of Sirt, Gaddafi’s hometown. The kids sensed that.

But this group, Randa explains, realize that the war may drag on. They’re less upbeat and more nervous.

“I worry that I’m going to have to repeat fifth grade,” says Amina, the short-haired ten-year-old. Nadia, the 14-year-old with braces, agrees: “I’m scared that I might lose the rest of the [school] year.”

“Do you watch the news on TV?” I ask the kids.

“Yeah, I have to,” says Mona, 12. “It’s boring — there’s no internet. And when I come home, my parents are always watching the news.”

Lina, the eleven-year-old in the white headscarf with flowers, agrees. “People are always watching the news at home. It’s painful to watch people who have been burned and wounded.”

“What did you watch before the war?” I ask her.

“Cartoons,” Lina replies softly, her voice breaking. “But now, it’s always Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. All the time.”

She looks past me and stares out the window. Her eyes tear up. I wasn’t ready for this — until now, the kids had been bouncy and energetic. She buries her head in her arms on her desk. The girl next to Lina leans over and comforts her.

  1. Luke says:

    Wow – thank you for once again making this civil war real and giving voices to the people (including, yes, children) caught up in it.

    Is this the “Dark Places” story you refer to?


  2. oaklove says:

    Thanks so much for your fascinating blog. I was just re-reading this post and realized I recognized the visual aid the instructor is using in one of the photos. It’s from the first aid chapter of Where There is No Doctor, a book published by the organization I’m proud to work for: Hesperian (based in Berkeley). We have an open copyright that allows any portion of the book to be reproduced provided it is not sold for profit, and it’s always exciting to see how our materials are used. Did you happen to notice if they were actually using the book in the course, or just the image of how to ice and soak a sprain?

    FYI, our books are all available for sale on our site or for free download. We also maintain a list of the numerous translations on our site. When you’re back in Berkeley you should stop by the office and say hi sometime!


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