[Published here January 10, 2014]
There is something haunting about young, vibrant laughter in a building cracked by bullets and shellfire. There is something surreal about hundreds of innocent children doodling in a room where, only hours before, sniping had punctured the painted walls. But these are the everyday realities of schools along Tripoli’s sectarian fault lines. From frequent closings and traumatized students to the militarization of buildings meant to be “safe spaces” for children, many of Tripoli’s schools are caught up in the city’s micro-war.
One elementary school in Qobbeh has seen some of the worst damage. NOW visited Dahr al-Moghr, situated between the warring Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh neighborhoods, to see how instability has affected the city’s youngest generation.
Jagged glass protruded from window frames. Shellfire had carved out small craters in the school’s outer walls; bulletholes and children’s art alike riddled the classrooms. Spaces deemed too “exposed” are left unused in an effort to protect students. “You should have seen it five years ago,” said the school’s principal, Samar Afiouneh. “It was heaven.”
Now, Dahr al-Moghr is living on both sides of hell. “We have gunfire from up top, from Jabal Mohsen, and from below, from Bab al-Tabbaneh,” Afiouneh told NOW. As a result, neither end of the school is safe – not even the principal’s office. Indeed, a single, chilling bullet hole in Afiouneh’s own office window would have killed her had she been sitting in her chair at the time.
Tripoli’s tensions have bred startling daily realities and necessary habits. Dahr al-Moghr’s students missed over two weeks of school last semester, without any chance to set up remedial classes so far. Afiouneh said it was now normal for parents not to send their children to school if they deemed tensions too high. She herself was forced to develop her own evacuation plan for the school’s students by building an extra exit into a courtyard. One Saturday morning in October, while school was in session at Dahr al-Moghr, heavy clashes erupted in the area. “There were a lot of bullets, and the army helped us evacuate the kids,” she recalled. “I don’t even know how we got out.”
Schoolteacher Antoinette Sleiman, who presides over a rambunctious group of five- and six-year-olds at Dahr al-Moghr, starts every morning with the same 15-minute routine: a bag search. “We find bullets, daggers, lighters, and shell casings,” she recounts as she looks around the room. She tells NOW that gunfire keeps most of her students awake throughout the night, so they fall asleep during her class. “We don’t have the heart to wake them up,” she says.
Remarkably, Dahr al-Moghr’s students are adamant in their fearlessness, perhaps to the point of sickening irony. In every classroom NOW visited, the three- to six-year-olds refused to admit that the nighttime gunfire scared them. Instead, young boys and girls alike raised their thumbs and index fingers in gun-form, “shooting” each other across the room. With perturbing nonchalance, tiny students readily volunteer the latest neighborhood talk: “so-and-so was shot in the back last night;” “I had to sleep in my bathtub the last three nights in a row;” “my father showed me how he shoots.”
“Based on their words, you’d think they’re fighters already,” Sleiman said. “They talk about shooting, attacking, and killing. They don’t have a childhood.”
With gunfire at home and at school, it certainly is difficult to have a normal childhood – even more so when the Lebanese Armed Forces have turned an entire floor of Dahr al-Moghr into a barracks. Soldiers eat, sleep, and smoke in the school’s bottom floor, while four-year-olds learn basic French phrases only one story above them. Army sandbags and cement blocks fill many of the schools’ window frames. An open terrace on the school’s main floor, previously a play area for the students, is now populated with large tin barrels and more army sandbags.
Repairs, Afiouneh said, are hard to come by. “I only have enough in the school budget to restore classroom windows, not hallways,” she told NOW. Recently an NGO had inspected the damage and promised to return with funds to plug up pockmarks and replace glass. Days later, they called Afiouneh back to tell her that the school’s precarious position meant that repairing any of the damage would be futile: Dahr al-Moghr was in the line of fire and would only get damaged again. The shattered windows remained.
Nor has Lebanon’s Ministry of Education provided relief, an administrator at the mixed Loqman School, just off of Tripoli’s Abu Ali roundabout, told NOW. Requesting anonymity to be able to speak freely, she said, “At the very least, [the Ministry should] give the teachers at these schools a call to thank them for their continued service to the students.” All administrators with whom NOW spoke said that the Ministry had provided no training for school staff on how to respond to gunfire or evacuate students.
According to administrators, the new year looks bleak. Nour Khaled,* who does administrative work for a number of schools in Tripoli, told NOW that she hasn’t been able to enter schools under her purview in Jabal Mohsen that she had previously frequented. “As a Sunni, I’m not welcome in the region – even as a woman.” She said that Tripoli teachers now get assigned to schools based on sect, a newly worrying trend.
As tensions rise, “you get scared most of all for the kids,” Afiouneh said. Though many of them display bravado and indifference in the classroom, their principal admits that the environment of violence is wearing them – and their teachers – down thin.
“The kids have problems with their nerves,” she said. “They’re continually scared… You have to stay strong for them, but sometimes the situation is stronger than you are.”
*Name was changed because the individual was not authorized to speak to the press.