Teaching under Duress - The Harsh Reality of my Time in Zawia University, Libya

Contributed by Anonymous, 28 May, 2014

The question of safety in Libya is often asked and discussed but answers are hard to find. On the one hand it depends on time and place, the situation being ever unstable and highly volatile, on the other hand safety in Libya is not a simple issue, many factors contribute to a feeling on insecurity:

- political instability,
- presence of guns and heavy weapons everywhere,
- clan wars and feuds,
- gangs.

There is also, let's face it, a kind of general "hush" over the topic. Because of shame or fear, the truth doesn't really get out there. When asked about the safety situation in their city, Libyan people commonly throw you off topic rather than answer the question. At best they will downplay the reality, at worst they'll tell you there is no problem whatsoever.

Many times I've been given the nothing-happens, nothing-to-talk-about line. I once heard gunshots right outside the room where I was working in Zawia University. From the open window I saw grown up men -security guards- duck for cover. When asked later they explained to me that it was "just a wedding". Despite the obvious truth in front of your eyes people will still deny Libya is unsafe.

Recently during what had been declared as a period of "civil disobedience" the President of the University and the director of the biggest oil refinery in Zawia were threatened to death if they dared open for business. This happened on live TV.

Threats against people's lives are a common aspect of life in Zawia and it can happen at all the levels of society. Not a week passes without hearing tales of violence and death. The "stories" below however are only too real, I have experienced these myself or heard them from people I know very well.

Guns and weapons are everywhere in Zawia, it is a very common to see people walking down the street with guns, rifles and even bigger weapons as well as trucks with anti-aircraft machine guns at the back. You hear them too, day and night the sound of gun fire is as normal as the sound of birds in this city. Sometimes the noise is bigger, louder and you know tanks or something heavy are being used. I have once seen people firing "friendly" fire in a busy street, setting fire to a tree. Could have been a house just as easily. Traditionally guns are fired at weddings, sometimes even killing people.

When the situation get more serious than usual, road blocks and check points are set up to protect the city. Those are manned by men (not the army or the police since there is no national security forces) with AK47 or Kalashnikovs, tanks as well sometimes. It then becomes difficult to drive in or out of the city. A man I know got a bullet splinter in his eyes once, trying to talk with those men during the days of "Civil" Disobedience.

Factory workers are often blackmailed and forced to surrender part of their wages to gangs on a regular basis. Gangs of thugs control whole areas just outside Zawia and businesses must agree to pay bribes and let their workers suffer this racket in order to continue operating. Threats are only too real, those thugs come in heavily armed and they are not afraid to use them if someone refuses to cooperate.

Armed robberies are quite common in and around Zawia. Private houses rented by companies for their employees are the target of violent armed robberies. I personally know a victim who had a gun held to his head for hours while thugs raided the house he was living in. He also witnessed a carjacking right in front of his eyes on his way to work. That man is now too afraid of leaving his house on his own.

In Zawia University death threats against teachers and other members of staff are common. Teachers, heads of department, the Dean and the President are threatened, not once, but regularly if they don't comply with students' demands, often for something as trivial as a mark that is too low. Using their family clans as back up, students pressure staff into giving them exactly what they want. I have actually seen a written death threat and some teachers speak openly of the fear they have to go to work.

Libyan teachers secure their positions with the support of their own clans. Any show of disrespect towards them is met with force and threats against the students and/or their family. One teacher once told me how his family ended up beating up a student who had crossed the line with him.  Another told me how her family went looking for a student who had misbehaved in her class to teach him some manners and make it clear to them that this could never happen again. For foreigners without clan protection, keeping safe is a real problem.

Exam times are even more dangerous and while the situation is well known and understood, nothing is done to stop it. Instead reinforcement and extreme safety measures are taken: exams are conducted behind locked gates with armed security guards (guards are not usually armed on university grounds) and many teachers are too scared to face invigilation duties. I have seen a petition signed by female teaching assistants whereby they asked to be exempted from exam duties because of fear and threats.

Nothing had prepared me for this experience in Zawia. No one ever told me about this when I was recruited, I found out the hard way and learnt to live and work under high level of stress.

Is it the same all over Libya? It's difficult to say as I haven't been everywhere and again people don’t speak openly of those issues. Besides the situation keeps changing and a military coup or some political upheavals such as happened recently, can change the situation dramatically.

Would I recommend staying away from Libya? I wouldn't, as people have their own reasons for choosing to come to Libya and for some, Libya is better than their own countries but I would advise teachers to stay away from Zawia University, I know only too well what happens there. 

Tags: business | Welfare | employees | Libya |



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