Central African Republic

Insecurity has not dampened children’s aspirations in Central African Republic

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Cadesky
Thanks to UNICEF-sponsored ‘bush schools’ in northwestern CAR, displacement has not stopped these girls from pursuing an education.

By Jessica Cadesky

In this frontline diary, UNICEF Child Rights Advisor Jessica Cadesky describes the impact of insecurity in northwestern Central African Republic (CAR), where many villagers have fled both internal conflict and the fighting that has spilled across the border from the neighbouring Darfur region of Sudan.

EN ROUTE TO PAOUA, Central African Republic, July 2007 – Our convoy stopped on the dirt road intersecting the northwestern village of Nana Barya. Climbing out of the car, we were confronted by the burnt ruins of a village. In the entrance of one house lay a tiny child’s sandal, left behind in the fracas of flight.

I had been was asked to accompany two British journalists to the northwestern town of Paoua. As one of the world’s most neglected emergencies in a former French colony, CAR rarely figures in the English-language media. For this reason, I was eager to venture into the field and show the journalists around.

But I was also nervous, since this was my first time leading a field mission. As I kept up casual conversation, I was acutely aware of the ever-present danger of armed bandits plaguing the largely lawless north of CAR.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Cadesky
One of the UNICEF-sponsored schools near Paoua town in northwestern CAR.

Across the north, villages have been turned into battlegrounds for clashes between various armed groups, including the elite government forces and rebel groups. In Paoua sub-prefecture alone, more than 50,000 people have been displaced since January 2006, fleeing many kilometres into the bush in search of security. 

But the bush is no easy refuge. Families live in desperate conditions where finding shelter, water, food and medicine is a daily struggle that is often lost.

School is an oasis of hope

One of the journalists wanted to get closer to the empty village. Wading through the grass, we approached an abandoned school, its wooden doors locked. We peered in through the lattice windows to see wooden school benches, looking as if they were waiting patiently for young students to come back to class. A geography lesson from months before was still chalked on the board, a testament to childhood interrupted by conflict.

I shuddered at the eeriness of it all as we navigated through the grass back to the Land Cruisers, stomping to scare away any snakes.

The next day we woke at daybreak to the sound of roosters at the local Catholic mission. My body ached from bouncing for nine hours across CAR’s ravaged roads the day before, but I was excited. Today we were scheduled to visit one of the ‘bush schools’ set up with support from UNICEF to continue the education of some 25,000 children displaced by conflict.

Walking through an endless sea of shoulder-high grass, we reached a clearing, and an oasis of hope. More than 50 children sat under UNICEF-marked plastic sheeting, shielded from the sun’s intense heat. A teacher was delivering a geometry lesson to the eager and attentive students.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF CAR/2007/Cadesky
Displaced children in a bush school are happy to be back in class.

Hard life in the bush

We interviewed Thierry, 9, about his experience and what he thought about coming back to school in the bush. He answered the journalists’ questions with strong resolve and unexpected poise.

“I want to be a doctor,” he asserted. “I want to change my country so that we can all return to our villages.”

Thierry told us how he was tending to his younger sister while his mother was at the market the day his village was attacked in January. He managed to hide while armed men torched huts and attacked villagers. Later, he and his sister were reunited with their mother in the bush, where the family now lives.

Like so many other children, he was not able to attend school for over a year, because his family would not return to the village unless the security situation improved. Life in the bush, he said, is hard.

As we returned to the mission that night to dine on generous portions of rice and goat stew (I had long since given up vegetarianism in CAR), I reflected on the preceding three days. I had witnessed firsthand how insecurity can drive poor families to desperate measures, but I had also seen the resilience of the children of CAR.

I am still haunted by images of the burnt, empty village, but I am comforted by this: If UNICEF can give children like Thierry a chance at an education, he may just grow up to be a force for change in his country.


 

 

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