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The impact of explosive weapons on children in Libya

Since the beginning of the first Libyan civil war in 2011, armed conflict has led to high rates of civilian casualties across the country. Explosive weapons such as airstrikes, shelling and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have had particularly devastating effects, and there has been a worrying trend of increasing civilian casualties in recent years, including many child casualties.

Libya was one of the top ten countries affected by explosive violence in 2018, with 392 civilian casualties across 42 incidents. This was a 140% increase from 2017. In 2019, Libya saw a further 131% increase in civilian casualties from explosive weapons across 125 incidents. 91% of these civilian casualties have occurred in populated areas, where explosive weapons are particularly harmful to civilians.  

In the first quarter of 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported that civilian casualties had increased by 45%, compared to the last quarter of 2019. Casualties have continued to mount throughout the year, with a 172% increase in civilian deaths and injuries between April and June compared to the first quarter of 2020, as the Libyan National Army (LNA) was pushed out of Tripoli by the Government of National Accord (GNA) with support from Turkish forces. 

Explosive Weapons
The nature of explosive weapon use in Libya seems to be evolving in line with different stages of the conflict. In 2018, 81% of civilian casualties there were attributed to IEDs, 14% to ground-launched explosives and 5% to airstrikes. One of the main users of IEDs was the terror-group ISIS. In 2019, however airstrikes were the leading cause of casualties in Libya, accounting for 72% of over 900 casualties. This drastic shift in the impact of different types of explosive weapons can be attributed to the escalation of the LNA’s campaign to take Tripoli, which was launched in April 2019.  

Given the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas such as Tripoli, it is of no surprise that many of those affected were children. 35 children were recorded as killed during 2019, and a further 42 were maimed, according to the United Nations. The majority of these child casualties were attributed to the LNA and its affiliates. Most occurred during the offensive on Tripoli by the LNA, which included the use of shelling and airstrikes.

In early 2020, the majority of casualties from explosive violence in Libya were from heavy weapons such as rockets, artillery and mortars rather than air strikes. These casualties included 19 boys (with 7 deaths) and 8 girls (including 5 deaths). However, the impact of explosive weapons on the lives of children in Libya stretches far beyond the immediate impact. When the LNA retreated from Tripoli in May 2020 it planted landmines and IEDs across the city, often in the homes of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who had left because of the fighting. On 14 July three children were wounded after a mine exploded in their home in Tripoli’s Al-Khela neighbourhood. Even though the conflict for Tripoli has been won, mines, IEDs, and explosive remnants of war continue to devastate the city.

Impact on Children

Education
In addition to direct physical impacts, children in Libya suffer from the short- and long-term impacts of explosive violence. Included in this is access to education. By 2019, 212 Libyan schools were reported to be damaged and 53 were recorded as fully destroyed by the violence there. The destruction of such infrastructure is likely to have lasting impacts on the education of children and underpins the dangers faced by children in Libya on a daily basis.  

Even where schools are not damaged, access to education is interrupted by the need to close schools. 220 schools in and around Tripoli were closed throughout 2019 and remained closed in 2020, affecting the education of over 116,000 children. Additionally, displacement affects children’s ability to attend school, and by 2019 there were 145,000 internally displaced children in Libya. 

Health
Healthcare services have also been adversely affected by explosive weapons, with 17.5% of hospitals and 20% of primary health care facilities damaged or destroyed. This is a critical problem for children who are survivors of explosive weapons injuries, which often creates long term health problems, as well as affecting general child healthcare provision. In 2019, it was reported that 248,000 children were in need of humanitarian assistance due to the ongoing conflict.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef have raised the alarm that many children in Libya are at risk of preventable diseases, in part caused by missing vaccine doses due to the lack of serviceable healthcare facilities or family displacement due to the conflict. 

Psychological Health
The proliferation of explosive weapons has had severe impact on the mental health of Libyan children. Explosive weapons are known to cause psychological trauma for both survivors of attacks and for those who fear that they may become victims. Additionally, children displaced by conflict are often very vulnerable to mental health issues such as PTSD or depression.  

Approximately 6% of Libyan households with children reported observing negative behaviours or emotional changes in their children, with a higher prevalence of these issues among internally displaced children. These symptoms of psychological distress can include behaviours such as lack of self-confidence or hyperactivity. Inadequate mental health care facilities and taboos surrounding mental illness mean these issues may often go untreated. 

Conclusion 

As of late summer 2020, the Libyan conflict shows little signs of abating, with large influxes of weapons and mercenaries still entering the country. The parties at the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020 issued a statement affirming their commitment to the existing arms embargo on Libya, but several of the countries present at the conference have continued to violate it.  

GNA and Turkish forces have pushed the LNA back from Tripoli, an area with high numbers of civilians, which offers some hope for the children of Tripoli. However, a looming battle over the LNA-controlled city of Sirte, and suggestions that Egypt may send troops into Libya, mean the conflict and the use of explosive weapons seem to be far from over. Children are already being killed in the area around Sirte, with five deaths caused by airstrikes and Grad rockets in early June.

The terrible impact of explosive weapons on Libyan children therefore seems likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

For more research on the impact of explosive violence on children, please visit AOAV’s category page on this matter here.