On a hospital bed in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, five-year-old Malak Al-Shami flicks through pictures of her brother and sister on her father’s laptop. Three weeks ago the three children were asleep at home when a rocket smashed through the ceiling of their house. Report by Patrick Wells
Malak lost her right leg in the blast. Her brother, Mohammed, aged three, and sister, Rodaina, aged one, were both killed.
VIDEO: 3 June 2011 – UNICEF’s Patrick Wells reports from the beseiged Libyan city of Misrata on how children are coping with the conflict.
Hajrab Abdal-Shaheed, Malak’s aunt, has been visiting her daily since the incident. She says Malak still doesn’t understand what has happened to her family, “She has a problem sleeping at night, and she is sometimes dreaming about the explosion and sometimes dreaming about her sister and brother.”
Twelve weeks of relentless urban conflict has reduced many of Misrata’s streets to ruins. On Tripoli street, a major fault line in the battle for the city, houses and shops once occupied by families stand shattered and empty, their facades punctured by tank shells and raked with machine-gun fire.
House to house fighting, sniper fire and the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas have taken an extraordinary toll on bodies and minds. The total number of civilian casualties is still unknown, but more than a thousand people have been registered missing. Whether they have been caught up in conflict or have been displaced to other regions is still being assessed.
The city centre is now a silent memorial to the fighting. Rebels have pushed Government forces 25 km east to Dafniya, and have retaken the airport in the south, so the city is no longer vulnerable to shelling. But Misrata is still surrounded and basic provisions can only be brought in by sea.
Immediate support needs
UNICEF, as part of a joint mission, has conducted a fact-finding mission to Misrata to assess the impact of the war on children, identify local partners to work with and also provide vaccines. UNICEF has delivered a shipment of 41,500 doses of different vaccines, including 15,000 doses of polio.
The team also visited a school where 25 families had sheltered for weeks after their own homes were destroyed by the fighting. In a classroom, children had made a paper and plasticine model depicting the horror unfolding outside. It showed tanks driving through the town centre, snipers on rooftops and dead bodies lying in the streets.
Saeed Awadalla, UNICEF Head of Benghazi Field Hub, says that the siege has had a terrible effect on the wellbeing of children, “The siege period was long, with continuous shelling and the shootings and the snipers,” he says, “so it was very hard on the children. Some children were screaming, some children have seen members of their families dying or injured.”
Mr. Awadalla adds that many children will need help to overcome the psychological wounds inflicted by the violence. “I think that the children of Misrata have experienced more violence than the children in Benghazi. We will work with our partners to bring in services and recreation kits and whatever is required.”
Child-friendly spaces in Benghazi, supported by UNICEF, are providing psycho-social support for children. These will be expanded to Misrata and also to other areas across Libya as the security situation allows.
The children of Misrata crave normality and want to go back to playing outside, but their parents are concerned about the unexploded cluster bombs and landmines which may remain hidden under the sand and rubble. UNICEF partners are giving educational messages to local radio stations to raise awareness of the dangers of picking up these deadly devices and mine clearance is being prioritised.
In the afternoons in the city centre, young people can be seen working in groups to try and clear some of the detritus of war from the pavements. The clean-up effort may bring a sense of hope and renewal, but for the hundreds of child casualties in this conflict, life may never return to normal.