Clearing the path

Clearing the path back to school for Libyan girls

©Rikke Østergård

Clearing the path back to school for Libyan girls

This year, DanChurchAid (DCA) has been working to remove mines and other explosives from a girls' school in the Libyan city of Sirte. The task has been challenging but the results are rewarding.

By Rikke Østergård

It was a horrendous sight, which met the DCA mine action team when they first visited the abandoned girls' school in Sirte.
Shattered glass, dust and debris everywhere. Open gaps between the classrooms with walls having been torpedoed by explosions. Torn up blackboards and ripped furniture with its' stuffing all around it. Bullets sprinkled over the floors. And metal fragmentation everywhere.
“It has been an incredibly challenging task,” says the programme manager for DCA Libya. “Surrounded by bullets and fragmentation, the deminers' search tools would signal dangers everywhere.”
It was almost hard to imagine that there had ever been normal school days in these classrooms.

©Rikke Østergård
In 2017, DCA sent the mine action team of thirteen people to the Libyan city of Sirte to start removing mines, explosives and other dangers. The effort was made possible with funds coming from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minbuza). At the time when DCA first arrived in Sirte, the city had only recently been taken back from the so-called Islamic State, which had occupied the Libyan coastal city for more than a year.
Driving through the battered streets, it was obvious that many dangers could be lurking in the landscape of collapsed houses and bullet-ridden facades. The Libyan Mine Action Center had assisted in finding the right spot for DCA to start their clearance in Sirte and eventually, the girls' school was selected as an important task.

Interview with the school principal

The loss of education

There used to be just about 200 girls in their early teens who would attend the girls' school in Sirte. The school specialized in science and would plant the seeds for young women with ambitions to become for instance doctors or scientists. That all changed in the spring of 2015, as ISIS managed to take over the city and named Sirte as their most important base outside of the Middle East. Sirte holds symbolic value as it is the birthplace of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown during the uprising in the country in 2011.

©Rikke Østergård
With the arrival of ISIS, the girls lost their chance to keep studying at the school as ISIS took over the building. And after the group was ousted by armed Libyan groups with the support from US air strikes in December 2016, the school was left in a terrible state.

Overcoming the challenge

Clearing the way for the girls to get back into the classrooms would be a tricky job for DCA.
“The building had changed hands so many times. From ISIS to local militias back to ISIS and so on. Knowing this, we were obviously concerned about what we would encounter there. For instance, we could not go through any of the main gates as we accessed it. We took a very cautious approach,” explains the programme manager.

©Rikke Østergård
Even though the challenge was severely complex and the clearance team had to be very patient as they made their way through the 12.000 square meters, DCA finally managed to finish the task in the fall of 2017.
Afterwards, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assisted in finishing setting up the classrooms and getting the school ready for a fresh beginning.

A new beginning

Because a part of the families, who fled from the city during the ISIS occupation, have yet to return, there are now fewer potential candidates for the school.
However, as the school has now finally reopened, there are already 123 students back on the school benches ready to move on with their education.

“Personally, this task seemed almost symbolic,” says the programme manager from DCA Libya. “We constantly see how Libya has so many strong women with a lot of potential. They are an essential part of Libya's future. And so is education. So this is a really big deal.”

Unfortunately, there is still a great need for mine action in Libya. DCA will continue to make Libya safer by joining the efforts to remove the tremendous amounts of mines and other explosives left from the past seven years of war. However, from March 2018, DCA will need more funding to ensure that this work can continue to take place.

©Rikke Østergård