This month, hundreds of thousands of students in Libya are heading back to universities, keen to start a delayed academic year. But the semester could be stopped at any moment due to endless fighting and an absence of security.
“I want to go back to my faculty, but I am not sure I can really go back,” said Suad Al Mabrouk, a third-year student in medical school in Sabha University.
Last year, armed groups occupied the female dormitory of Sabha University and forced the students to leave immediately, as the militants wanted to use the building as a base for artillery and mortars. Later, Al Mabrouk and her colleagues were allowed to go back to the dormitory to pick up their possessions.
“We were totally shocked by the amount of destruction. Empty bullets and mortar rounds were everywhere, our clothes and books were thrown into corridors,” Al Mabrouk said. “We could not recognize our stuff and ran away out of fear.”
Libya is bitterly split now between two opposing governments, parliaments and fighting forces, both intent on seizing the country’s power and assets. Mixed in with that central conflict, many other armed factions are roaming the countryside, many of them half criminal, half political. In most regions, there are also some fighters from local tribes.
According to United Nations estimates, 400,000 Libyans have fled their homes to escape the fighting. Moreover, the civil war that has been wracking the country has seen universities bombed. Some of the country’s 12 public universities, where most students are enrolled, have had to halt education, and operations have been impeded at others. The British Council and the U.S. State Department, both of which had plans to try to support higher education in Libya, have fled the country.
The Sabha female dorm, where 200 students used to sleep, is still under the armed group’s control.
“If I can’t stay at the dorm this year, I won’t be able to complete my study,” Al Mabrouk said. Her village is 190 kilometers southwest of Sabha.
There are hundreds of students like her who can’t reach their universities because of poor security. “The roads are not safe anymore,” said Mbarka Youssef, a second-year student at Sabha University’s medical school. “I want to move to the University of Tripoli but my father can’t support me financially so I am staying at home for now,” she said sadly.
The University of Tripoli enjoys a bit better situation. The Libyan capital is controlled by a rival government opposing the internationally recognized administration, but security in Tripoli appears to be good enough that students can make it to campus most days. Indeed, the university is enrolling students who have fled from other more violent parts of the country.
The University of Benghazi, which has a student population of 83,000, was forced to halt all teaching as it is right in the midst of violent conflict. The university is temporarily operating in secondary schools in territory controlled by Libya’s internationally recognized government, which is still fighting for control of Benghazi against forces aligned with Islamic State militia.
In northwestern Libya, Al Zawia University is operating at a little over half of its capacity. “The spread of weapons and the lack of adequate budget are the two main problems,” said Omar Sultan, the dean of the oil and gas engineering faculty of Al Zawia University in northwestern Libya. About 60 percent of the students who are usually enrolled at Al Zawia University are still attending, the dean said.“Only students who are living outside the city face difficulties to reach the university due to the clashes on the road,” he said.
“Everyone has a gun now,” said Aymen Nouri, a student at Al Zawia University. “The situation is very dangerous, killings and kidnappings happen anytime in front of everyone’s eyes,” he said. He called for better security measures to protect universities.
Under the degraded security situation and bad living conditions, with chronic power outages that last for as long as 12 hours, the educational situation also looks grim.
“The challenges are countless,” said Ahmed Mukhtar Swidan, assistant professor in the engineering faculty of Al-Marqab University in northern Libya. Along with security problems, he said, “educational facilities and laboratories need maintenance and repair.”
Professors are working in unstable conditions, with no regular payment of their wages and no health or social insurance, said Ali Al-Aswad, a professor in the oil and gas engineering faculty of Al Zawia University. “We are working in very dangerous, unprofessional circumstances,” he said. “When you enter a class where students are armed, you can’t teach normally.”
It’s too early to predict how the academic year will proceed this year, many professors said. “We are trying to do our job, but we have to make sure of the university safety before we start classes,” said Al-Aswad.