Mustafa is watching carefully. His brother Amr is sensibly taking apart an assault rifle, snapping parts apart and laying them onto a table in their father’s garage in Ras Lanuf, Libya, which also operates as a mechanical repairs shop. “It always needs to be cleaned, the dust gets into even the smallest parts,” says Amr. Mustafa’s eyes move with each piece being laid out. It is part fascination, part boredom. Since the middle of February school has been on an indefinite holiday brought on by the uprising to topple Libyan President Colonel Muammar Qadhafi. While Mustafa stays home or plays with his friends his brother Amr, 19, goes with a group of friends from their neighborhood to support the rebels in the patrols of their town.
Their mother won’t let 13-year-old Mustafa join them, she reiterates this from their living room not far from the mechanic shop. But, on quiet afternoons with nothing else to do, Mustafa follows his brother out to as far as a checkpoint at the beginning of the downtown area and watches as Amr’s group inspect cars arriving into the critical oil port. “I’m not old enough,” he laments, “But one day, God willing, I will be able to fight for my city too.”
In the midst of the political turmoil both children often bear the greatest impact of both the short and long term challenges, but their needs frequently take a back seat to the larger goals of the political movements. Yet they are not a marginal population of their societies. According to UNICEF, children make up around 40% of the population in the countries where the “Arab Spring” uprisings have been most intense: Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Children have been critical participants in the recent upheavals. In Tahrir Square in Cairo, eight-year-old Niyaz became famous for sitting atop the shoulders of his father and leading chants demanding the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. His strong voice drew large crowds. His patriotically painted face and the faces of children like him, camping in the square with parents and siblings, have often been used in international reporting, to represent the promise of an emerging new order—young and hopeful.
[inset_left]“Attacking children is a way in which the regime forces families to be quiet, to keep their loved ones at home”[/inset_left] Tragically, their frozen smiles captured in class photos also fill the walls and posters that commemorate the fatalities of the bloody clashes. In Syria, video has documented the way in which children are often the direct target of efforts to clamp down on the uprising. “Attacking children is a way in which the regime forces families to be quiet, to keep their loved ones at home,” describes Moustafa Ayad, an Egyptian-American media specialist and journalist who has been traveling around the region pursuing the evolution of digital media and its role in the uprisings. Videos like the ones that depict the brutally tortured body of 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khatib—who was arrested in the Dera’a clashes at the end of April—are not surprising in Syria, Ayad insists. Other terrible videos have since followed, many of them featuring friends of the young victim Hamza, all showing signs of torture and disfigurement. The families have chosen to broadcast what many Syrians felt they already knew, that the young are not always spared because of their age.
The presence of children in combat zones is not new. The Iran-Iraq war produced stories of children who were said to have been tied together and sent in waves into minefields, to clear the way for ground infantry—with plastic keys hung around their necks to open the doors to heaven upon their martyrdom. There have been few reports of children at the front lines of the Libyan conflict. Some of the youngest combatants in Libya are as young as fifteen, an age when even Mustafa’s mother says she might think about letting him go on patrol with his brother. Officially, the rebel administration in Benghazi only takes recruits over 18 for training. Still, in places where the fighting is more intense, someone Mustafa’s age might be asked to go further than the downtown checkpoint. In Ziltan, boys as young as seven-years-old have been reported by Reuters to be acting as porters for the rebels, sometimes assembling and cleaning weapons as large as they are.
In Bin Jawad a young rebel follows very closely behind another much older fighter. He is at another checkpoint down an important stretch of road from Mustafa’s town, which connects the two oil ports. Like Mustafa, he is not aware of the full scope of the conflict as he is only fifteen. Although relatively far from the fight he fires his rifle in the air and throws up the V for victory sign—always staying close to the video equipment of several journalists nearby. For the cameras he yells “Allah U Akbar.” God is Great, over and over again, stopping to ask to see the videotape. As far as he knows, the rebels have held the line, some three kilometers from his position, for another day. His school is being used as a trauma center for the wounded and for those still dealing with the mental effects of the days where Qadhafi’s forces were still pounding towns like Bin Jawad.
When they are not in combat, children’s lives have been drastically altered by the upheavals of violence. At the intersection where Mustafa watches cars being inspected, boys as young as nine-years-old are working as traffic controllers for as much as six hours a day, alongside police. Others collect trash in roving units, all part of community orchestrated effort to keep the city’s school-age children occupied until the return of classes.
In the turmoil of the uprisings the economic impact on families fall hard on children who are forced to join the work force at younger ages and push schooling aside. Children in the Arab World are participants in the labor force at rates around 36% in the Middle East and 38% in North Africa They also risk exposure to injury as they navigate disrupted streets without the means or experience of adults in the same situation. Still they take their cues from the adults around them.
Not far away from Benghazi, in Cairo, Ahmed rises quickly and assuredly from an up-turned bucket used as a seat. He and four friends are operating a checkpoint along a busy road leading away from Tahrir Square and towards Coptic Cairo, a major thoroughfare for Cairo’s tightly packed traffic. Ahmed is headed towards a taxi, confidently. When he reaches it he bangs on the window to get the passenger’s attention.
It is past curfew in the middle of February and though the car was just checked fifty meters up the road, Ahmed and his friends have set up their own additional checkpoint and would like an inspection of the passing vehicle too. The passengers are foreign: a Canadian and a Nigerian. Ahmed demands they exit the car and inspects the contents of their bags. The driver and passengers wait quietly until Ahmed and his friends are satisfied, partly because another checkpoint—a more ‘official’ one—is not far off, but mostly because Ahmed and his friends are carrying sticks and heavy pieces of banister railing. Ahmed and his friends are all between 10 and 13 years old.
Not until a man in his thirties from the next checkpoint joins the inspection, with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, is Ahmed satisfied and lets the travelers go. Ahmed watches the older officer from the other checkpoint walk away and he resumes his position on his plastic bucket, to discuss with his friends the last exchange—with curiosity and interest. Gunfire crackles in the distance but they don’t flinch. Only one of the friends looks around briefly before he resumes their debriefing of the night’s events and their plan for the next day.
Federico Manfredi contributed to this report from Benghazi.