Schools reopen just weeks after thousands fled a militia attack in South Darfur

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Kodsi
Mariam Mohamed Omar, 15, worries about the effect the conflict will have on her education.

By Nagui Kodsi

MANAWASHI, Darfur, 7 March 2006 – Children are returning to school and around 70 per cent of services are running again in Mershing, South Darfur, just weeks after militia descended on the town and forced 57,000 people to flee for their lives.

At the end of January, 400 armed Janjaweed rebels attacked Mershing, looting and destroying buildings and terrorizing the community. Among those attacked were more than 22,000 residents of camps for internally displaced people who had come here to escape conflict elsewhere in the country.

When news of the attack reached UNICEF, the organization sent a team to assess and respond to the needs of affected children, including health, nutrition, water and sanitation, child protection and education. Since then, UNICEF and its partners have worked to provide essential services and reopen schools in the area.

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Kodsi
Classrooms in Manawashi gave shelter to people fleeing the militia attack on nearby Mershing. Some 20 families were crammed into each classroom.

Restoring a sense of normalcy

Mariam Mohamed Omar, 15, fled with everyone else when the militia descended on Mershing. The teenager walked to Manawashi village, 12 km away, where she and many others were taken in by the members of a community who had themselves been displaced by earlier violence. Schools and other public spaces were used for shelter, but with so many people fleeing the militia, there were as many as 20 families sleeping in every classroom. Some simply had to make camp under the trees near the marketplace.

“The whole village, the camp and the market were all looted and wiped out,” said Mariam, near tears as she remembered the attack on Mershing. “Nothing was kept from the camels and horses of the militia. I left my books behind me.

“I’ve spent the last three years in the camp in Mershing,” she continued. “I was able to continue going to school – it was great. I’ve learned a lot at school but I need to continue my education.”

Ensuring that children can continue their education during a crisis is one of UNICEF’s key objectives. School can provide a sense of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic situation and offers children hope for the future. To that end, UNICEF has begun reconstructing the schools destroyed in Mershing and rehabilitating the classrooms where displaced families temporarily lived in Manawashi. UNICEF is also is providing learning materials for children in both villages.

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Kodsi
People displaced by the violence voluntarily return to Mershing from Manawashi with the help of a government truck.

Mariam has already returned to Mershing and will be able to take her exams there this month. An aspiring teacher, she wants all children to have access to schooling. “Life without education is nothing,” she said.

Children and women most affected

Despite fears of continued violence, the Government of Sudan is encouraging displaced people to return to their towns or camps. In this case, the government provided transport for those wishing to make the journey back to Mershing and has brought in a new head of police to enforce security in that area.

Some 45,000 people have now returned to Mershing, while 6,000 chose to stay in Manawashi and another 6,000 moved to camps near Nyala city, about 80 km to the south, where there are more job opportunities and a greater sense of security. In both Mershing and Manawashi, UNICEF and other agencies are still providing food, water bladders, mobile health clinics, extra latrines and other support for victims of the rebel attack in January.

As in other conflicts, children and women remain the most affected by the violence in Darfur. For almost three years, Janjaweed militia groups have been forcing villagers from their homes. The total number of people affected by the conflict stands at 3.4 million, and approximately 1.4 million children under 18 years of age – including over 500,000 children under five – are currently living in IDP camps.

This year UNICEF has appealed for almost $167 million to fund its work in Northern Sudan, which includes Darfur.

Rachel Bonham Carter contributed to this story from New York.



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