ZAWIA, Libya—Mohamed Jadeer is slated to go back to studying engineering at Az-Zawia University in Northern Libya in the middle of September.
But rather than feeling excited, he’s ambivalent. The war-torn country’s increasingly violent civil war makes studying seem irrelevant or, worse, irresponsible.
“I’m not psychologically ready to hold a book or listen to a lecturer,” said Jadeer. “It may make me forget the war and the daily sad news. But I think courses shouldn’t start yet. This is what the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies want—things in Libya to seem quiet and calm.”
A University of Tripoli literature professor, Faraj Dardou, sympathizes with Jadeer. A few years ago, when insurgents waged a war with the help of NATO airstrikes that eventually toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, universities also offered courses that nearly everyone ignored. That situation will repeat itself, Dardou says.
“Studies at the university will begin on September 15 without security interruptions,” he said. “But many students will not attend.”
The dilemma facing Libyan higher education is one facet of the battle between forces vying to control different regions in the North African country in the vacuum left by Gaddafi’s death. The government’s army has far less firepower than the many warring militias. The war has eroded education and much of the rest of civil society over the past year.
Even the directors of academic programs that expect to be up and running are scrambling to accommodate last-minute challenges.
“Most students will come back,” said Ismail Ikesh, the faculty dean at Zawia University’s School of Pharmacy. “The only problem we may face is that teaching staff from Tripoli cannot join us because of the fighting taking place on the road between Zawia and Tripoli.”
Hundreds of primary and secondary schools have also closed indefinitely or postponed classes until late September.
“Most schools in our area are closed due the continuous shelling,” says Jamila Almagtoof, a teacher at the Aljanoobiya for Girls School in Zawia, a city on the Mediterranean Sea around 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.
The school has around 300 students who have been traumatized in one way or another, says Almagtoof.
“We are sick and tired of hearing explosions and rockets,” she says. “No one is safe here. We all could die. I go to school every day, but my children stay at home because their school is closed. Roads in the area are almost empty. It’s now like a ghost town. My husband does not want to go out from our house.”
The head teacher at the Aljanoobiya for Girls School, Naima Shalabi, says the stress has caused conflicts within the staff.
“Most teachers welcomed the start of the school year despite the security situation and considered the school administration decision to approve the start of school year a courageous one,” said Shalabi. “But a few teachers think the decision is risking lives of children.”
Children displaced by fighting, meanwhile, are hoping to drop into whatever school they or their parents can find. Schools that receive refugees often need to cobble together schedules that include night classes for some children.
Benghazi education officials recently issued a report that said 63,000 students and more than 8,500 teachers would not be able to go to schools in conflict zones.
“The ministry excluded some schools located in unsafe areas and schools where there are displaced people from the new school year,” said the Education Ministry spokesman, Samir Jernaz. “The displaced pupils and teachers can go to any school near where they are staying.”
It’s not clear if the refugees know they are welcome in different schools, however. And if they did know they could enroll in different schools, it’s not necessarily clear they know where to go.
In Joudaim, a town east of Zawia, Islamic militants with the Dawn of Libya, a loose coalition of militia groups that is one of the key players in the conflict, have been shelling a rival group in Wershafana, a region to the east of Zawia that’s considered an important gateway to Tripoli.
The Dawn of Libya fighters have been using the cafeteria in the Joudaim Martyrs School as their field kitchen without the education ministry’s permission.
The school’s administrators have arranged for students and teachers to transfer to other schools that are vacant in the evening. But those efforts appear to have been in vain.
“We got a letter from the ministry to accept displaced students in our schools,” said Nahla Hawwas, a school inspector in Zawia. “But, to be honest, we did not receive any one of them yet.”