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In Ethiopia’s troubled Gambella region, a master plan to get children back to school

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Heavens
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah visits Elia elementary school in the village of Elia, a three-hour drive out of Gambella Town, the capital of Ethiopia's remote and troubled Gambella region.

By Andrew Heavens

GAMBELLA, Ethiopia, 17 May 2006 – During a visit to western Gambella, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah laid out a master plan to get more children back to school in one of Ethiopia's most strife-torn regions.

Ms. Salah said UNICEF was ready to help the government form safe havens around the area's schools, ensuring that youngsters feel secure enough to attend classes. The suggestion to introduce ‘zones of peace’ around Gambella's schools came during a meeting with Regional President Omot Obang Olom.

"Here in Gambella, the problem, as we discussed it with the president, is really the problem of security," Ms. Salah said after the meeting. "In UNICEF we have lots of experience creating zones of peace for vaccinating children, for schools and other activities. Zones of peace are important because they bring people together."

Ms. Salah had travelled to Gambella after appearing as keynote speaker at the African Child Policy Forum's Second International Policy Conference on the African Child. The meeting was held at the United Nations Conference Centre in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on 11 and 12 May.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Heavens
Ethiopian children welcome UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah at Elia elementary school.

Introducing zones of peace

Gambella has a long history of ethnic strife between indigenous groups, Ethiopian ‘highlanders’ and people coming in across its porous border with southern Sudan. Just last month, cattle rustlers from Sudan reportedly killed scores of Ethiopians in their raids.

The resulting tension has had a terrible impact on the education of Gambella's children, said UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia Bjorn Ljungqvist, who accompanied Ms. Salah on her trip.

“Schools are the first institutions to suffer in all kinds of emergencies, particularly in conflict zones,” he said. “Education breaks down almost immediately because teachers don't feel safe in the schools. The children don't feel safe walking back and forth to the school.”

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Heavens
Residents of Gambella town bathe in the crocodile-infested Baro river that flows through the town.

Both UNICEF representatives said the regional president had been enthusiastic about the idea of introducing zones of peace into Gambella. UNICEF's country education team and its regional office in Gambella Town will now start working out the details of the idea by organizing meetings with government bodies and indigenous groups on the ground.

Road to reconciliation

If the plan gets the official go-ahead, local communities will be asked to suggest their own ways of safeguarding the movement of children to and from school across their land. Ms. Salah said that getting communities together to agree of safe zones around schools also often leads to greater reconciliation between warring groups.

“In Liberia three years ago, we launched the first 'Go Back to School' campaign after 10 years of war,” she recalled. “We saw children going to school carrying their books rather than their arms. For us education is bringing peace and children are the messengers of peace."

Mr. Ljungqvist said he had similar hopes for Gambella.

“Here in Gambella, communities have gone through such an extended time of suffering and threats and insecurity,” he said. “The best way to turn thinking around is to start with the children.”

“Today was a very good start. We are both very happy that the president here in Gambella said that it was a good idea. We hope to get this going very quickly because the next school year starts in September.”



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