Lebanon's young begin return to normalcy

After delays for rebuilding, south Lebanese students returned this week to schools that are still devastated by war.

An extra month's vacation sounds like a child's dream, but southern Lebanese kids seemed only too happy to be back at school last Monday. Their return follows a summer during which many lost their homes in the fighting between Hizbullah and Lebanon. After the cease-fire, unexploded cluster bombs kept them from playing outdoors.

"I'm really happy to be back and that we didn't have to leave school," says Mariam Qassem, age 11. "I like studying because when I grow up I want to be a children's doctor."

Mariam had been looking forward to last summer's holiday, which she said had turned into her worst ever. "The war really affected us, we had to leave our house and the Israelis destroyed a lot of our town and completely changed it."

Many children spent their summers pent-up in schoolhouses with their families as internal refugees, having fled the conflict that raged throughout the south. Nearly all of the 1 million mostly southern Lebanese who were displaced by the fighting have returned to their villages, the United Nations says.

But even as Lebanon's internal refugees return to their homes, a return to normalcy remains in the distant future. The reconstruction process has turned otherwise mundane events like a first day at school into notable milestones.

Danger still lurks in the south, despite an uneasy peace. More than a million unexploded cluster bomblets are scattered across southern fields, groves, and villages. Israeli planes dropped most of them in the last three days of the conflict, according to the United Nations. The ordnance has killed at least 18 civilians.

Lebanon says it needs about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure damaged in the 34-day Israeli offensive. But even before this year's destruction, Lebanon was already saddled with a public debt of about $38 billion – most of which stemmed from the reconstruction costs of the country's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Last Monday, a school director at Ansariyeh Public School was shouting into a microphone to marshal the blue-shirted children, who were waving Lebanese flags, into rows. The children were lining up to greet the education minister, who was about to arrive to mark the start of the school year.

But unlike years past, the director had to compete not only with the usual playground din, but also the sound of bulldozers.

Israeli bombs destroyed one wing of the school, which killed about 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians. A hill of rubble and steel supports was once a bathroom and classrooms.

Shell damage scars the neighboring wing, an upstairs row of classrooms gapes open to the elements on one side, and a corridor on the other through glassless windows and rents in the partition walls. Sums from a prewar math lesson are still legible on one blackboard.

Naziha Faqih, who is the mother of four children, was relieved to see her children running around the playground again. "But we're waiting to see how it will work. I don't know how they can study like this," she says.

Ansariyeh's pupils will learn in double shifts to get around the shortage of rooms. Prefabricated classrooms will be set up in the playground.

Compared to many southern Lebanese schools, Ansariyeh was relatively fortunate. Israeli bombing completely flattened 50 schools, say officials from UNICEF, the UN's international children's fund. Students from the destroyed schools will be taught in neighboring villages, again in shifts if needed. About 300 schools were partially ruined. The United Arab Emirates has pledged to foot the bill for rebuilding and repairing all Lebanon's public and private schools.

But blackouts are frequent across Lebanon, and some southern villages have no electricity at all, even two months after the conflict's end. In a further sign of the infrastructure challenges ahead for these students, the power cut out, delaying Education Minister Khaled Kabbalan's speech for several minutes.

But speak he eventually did, telling the gathered parents, teachers, and students that this "blessed day" will be crucial to the country's recovery.

"Knowledge is the way to honor and freedom ... and puts us on the right path to build our future, the future of our children, and the future of Lebanon," he said, as his young audience grew steadily noisier.

UNICEF is supplying 1,400 public schools with supplies and materials to help ease the burden on the government. Already, boxes of donated chalk, pens, globes, wooden clocks, and blackboard paints stood in one dusty schoolroom.

Four hundred thousand children will also receive a school bag with stationery. As hundreds of pupils trudged home from school later on Monday, the sky-blue UNICEF backpacks were already ubiquitous.

"Their families may have been deprived of a certain degree of income, may have lost work, so this is a way to reduce the burden, especially at the beginning of the new school year," UNICEF Lebanon representative Roberto Laurenti said.

"There will be special training for teachers to be able to spot those kids that have suffered more and have shown disturbances and refer those cases for special psychological assistance," he says.

Raifa Najm, a teacher at Maarake Public School near Tyre, said the new kits lifted children's spirits and helped motivate them for the start of a difficult year. Maarake will take in scores of pupils from the most-damaged areas.

"That's going to be the hard thing this year, the children's mind-sets," she said. "They're thinking about the war and it's all they talk about. When you talk to them, you sense they're still afraid."

At a school in the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, workers and volunteers from the Italian NGO Intersos are giving children mine and hygiene awareness lessons – subjects that will also become part of their regular curriculum.

Ten-year-old Bisan Kashakesh approved. "We watched a really funny cartoon, and now when we see a strange object we have to not pick it up but to tell our family or the Army," she says.

"We don't want the children to be like adults," Intersos's Francesca Scarioni says. "They just need to know not to touch. Guns and bombs are so common here, children sometimes go to look for them as an adventure."

Hygiene, too, is important because of the unsanitary conditions many children are living in, Ms. Scarioni says. Lebanon's prime minister has said about 130,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the south, Beirut's southern suburbs and the western Bekaa Valley.

"A lot of children lost their homes and three families are [sometimes] living together, all using one toilet, for example," she says.

• Wire services were used in this report.

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