Belfast Telegraph

Talkin' 'bout a revolution

Malachi O'Doherty witnessed shocking brutality while teaching English in Libya. The recent uprising set him wondering what became of his students

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It looks as if no dictator can rule without the compliance of the people. That is the lesson of the run of revolutions across North Africa, reminiscent of the similar ejections of tyrants across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

But the corollary of that - if it is true - is that those dictators now being ejected had enjoyed at least the acquiesence of their populations when they were in power.

To be fair to the masses who put up with these monsters, they may not have understood that they could have got rid of them; may not have had the organisational structures in place.

But, to some extent, they did not bother because, presumably, bad and all as things were, they could have been worse.

I arrived in Libya in June 1982 with a group of other English teachers recruited in Geneva.

Our first sight of our students seemed to be a display put on for us. About 30 young men were being made to hop along on their hunkers with an army officer walking behind them with a stick, like a shepherd.

Actually, in the context of the punishment regime we witnessed, that was a fairly modest disciplinary measure - a bit like a dilatory slap on the ear from a Christian Brother who hadn't properly warmed up for a caning.

On my first day of teaching, one of the boys - actually his name was Mubarak - had not come back from the mid-morning break. I asked his friend, Sanousi, where he had gone.

Sanousi said: "Mubarak leg broke, Mr Malky." Mubarak had been caught running in the corridor and had been punished for it. This punishment was a beating on the soles of the feet with a stick.

Mubarak, I noticed in the following weeks, was like a glutton for this; he just hadn't it in him to behave and be quiet and avoid these beatings.

Once we came into class and found all the boys sitting exhausted in wet clothes. The officer on duty overnight had made them all stand out on the parade ground and had hosed water over them.

I let them sleep on their desks and do no work, but would wake them up from time to time if an officer was passing.

The worst punishments I saw were boys being made to walk across the tarmac of the parade ground on their bare knees, bleeding being no excuse for having to stop.

Collective punishments included the entire class being ordered to have their heads shaved.

We had asked for an extension of the term because we had been late starting and the army came up with the bright idea that the boys would go along with this is they were shaved and thereby ashamed to go home looking like convicts. It worked. I remember on the last day of term watching one boy standing in full battledress in the noonday heat. He had been hosed down and rolled in the sand and he was barefoot.

His orders were to stand still and not fall over, yet he risked a cheeky wave to us driving out through the gates.

The officers who imposed these punishments seemed amiable, but bored. They no more wanted to be in these camps than the boys did. All had been conscripted into the army for training and education, mostly by Europeans and Russians.

At first, we were all shocked. But then some of our teachers - in fact, most of them - adapted to the system.

They would send boys for beatings that would draw blood if they couldn't get them to behave in class. I didn't do that, but then I couldn't keep order.

In the end, I decided that messers would be thrown out to fend for themselves. I wouldn't report them, but if they got caught, tough.

I have been wondering in the past week what became of those boys. Those who have survived will be men in their 50s now. Some, I like to think, speak English with a Belfast/Derry hybrid accent. I wonder what side they are on. Some may be fighting for Gaddafi - most not, I hope.

Once in class, I joked with them about whether they had ever met Gaddafi, or been to his home. One said he had.

Another laughed and said, "Mr Malky, you see Colonel Gaddafi and you kill him. He bad man." And the whole class enjoyed the joke.

It seemed they were not fooled by him and at least not so afraid of him that they wouldn't mock him. But, in some way, this grotesque system was more worth enduring than confronting.

Or maybe they didn't know that it was in their power to destroy him. Or maybe they felt the price would be too high, anyway.

Similarly, Irish families who knew there was massive abuse in schools let it happen without voicing protest.

The generation that demanded civil rights here in 1968 - inspired by Martin Luther King and the riots in Paris - acted in ways previous generations had not conceived of.

Why do people not protest more and change horrendous conditions? Perhaps because they value stability and routine above freedom.

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