Directed by adults, Libyan children salute Gaddafi

By Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Walking down a Tripoli street with a bag full of freshly baked bread, a Libyan man frowned when he saw crowds of children chanting the praises of Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi.

As explosions from what appeared to be NATO air strikes echoed in Tripoli, hundreds of children were taken by bus to a square outside a United Nations office, given green flags of Gaddafi’s revolution and told to shout anti-Western slogans.

“The children were brought here. This is their education. They shout all day instead of studying,” said the man, shaking his head. He said he always supported Gaddafi but was upset with the authorities allowing Libya to descend into civil war.

“Cameron is a problem, he is bombing Libya,” he said, in a reference to Britain’s part in the NATO campaign against Libya. “But this is a problem too,” he added, pointing at the children.

Gaddafi has been in power for more than four decades and two generations have grown up under his iron rule. In a country with a median age of about 24, most Libyans have known no other leader.

A rebellion in the east may have emboldened Libyans there to speak about democratic change, but here in Gaddafi’s stronghold his personality cult still weighs heavily on people’s minds.

His portraits, usually showing Gaddafi in military uniform with rays of light shining behind him, adorn many houses. Soldiers, their heads wrapped in green turbans, patrol the city.

State television plays patriotic songs and broadcasts images of Libyan tanks rolling through the desert.

Dancing under the watchful eye of teachers and government minders, hundreds of children chanted “Down, down USA” and set off firecrackers outside the gates of the U.N. office.

Some held gold-framed portraits of Gaddafi. Adults encouraged children to kiss the leader’s image in front of television cameras.

Outside coffee shops, passersby clutching steaming cups stopped to watch the procession with bewilderment.

Most children seemed indifferent to their task. For them, Gaddafi’s dominance is no novelty in a country where they have to study his Green Book of aphorisms as part of their curriculum.

WEEKS OF CONFLICT

While the propaganda machine works overtime to prop up the image of a strong state, weeks of conflict and Western air strikes seemed to have loosened Gaddafi’s hold on people’s minds.

Even during the most tightly controlled events, dissent is always evident. People are talking about change with varying degrees of openness, saying it is time for Gaddafi to go.

“People need to hope for change,” a bookshop owner said quietly on a recent visit. “Nothing more needs to be said.”

Ali, owner of a clothing shop, said he could not forgive a government that had given orders to shoot its own people during peaceful anti-government protests in February, a chain of events at the start of the uprising that led to the war.

“I used to love Gaddafi but many people have died,” he said. “It changed everything. Business was good before February. We cannot live like this. Things have to change.”

On the surface, Gaddafi’s influence is still strong in Tripoli. People avoid eye contact with foreign journalists. “Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama killer for petroleum,” says an English-language banner in central Green Square.

At al Fatah university, the picture was much the same. Hundreds of students, some draped in green flags head to toe, were taken by bus into the campus from all around Tripoli to celebrate Gaddafi’s rule on Thursday.

“We love Gaddafi. We hate the world,” shouted one high school student. “We want to kill our enemies.”

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

Directed by adults, Libyan children salute Gaddafi