In South Sudan, a school reopens, but risks remain
By Claire McKeever
Returning to the classroom is a welcome occasion for students and teachers alike in one town in South Sudan, but continued conflict and displacement mean that their safety remains fragile.
BENTIU, South Sudan, 20 February 2015 – William, a teacher in Bentiu, in South Sudan’s Unity State, cannot stop smiling. He has waited for this day a long time. The school where he taught until one year ago is reopening, and he is back in his old classroom, ready for the students.
When fighting erupted in Bentiu almost a year ago, thousands of people fled to the nearby United Nations base, where a camp was set up to protect civilians escaping the violence. The town remains eerily quiet, despite pockets of activity around the market. Continued insecurity has prevented many families from returning, but there are still vulnerable children left behind – including some who have been recruited by armed groups.
“The children in the town are suffering,” William says. “It is a good day when they can come back to school.”
Happy to be back
To prepare the school, the compound was cleared of vegetation and debris. Much of the timber from the school desks has been stripped for firewood, but the headmaster and teachers do their best to salvage what is left. In addition, 12 displaced families living on the premises were assisted in relocating safely.
Samuel, 14 years old, is looking forward to returning to school – so much so that he has arrived a day early. His favorite subject is social studies. Beside him sits his friend Monica, also 14, with her mother, Mary. The school has been their home since the beginning of the year.
“I really want Monica to go to school, so I am happy it has reopened,” says Mary, who has an important role to play as a member of the newly formed Parent-Teacher Association.
Monica’s eyes shine when she talks about returning to her studies. “I was in the market when the fighting happened, and we ran. A lot of people came to hide here [in the school]. I heard gunshots and lay down,” she recalls. “This used to be my school. Then we lived here. Now it is good.”
A stolen future
Once filled with the boisterous noise of more than a thousand children pouring out its doors to play, the school has reopened on a more cautious note. While there are a number of abandoned or occupied schools in the area that could potentially reopen, this one has been chosen for its secluded location and perimeter fence – a reminder of the dangers children continue to face as they seek an education in conflict-affected areas of South Sudan.
“Many of these children have suffered traumatic experiences, and providing a safe space to learn is a crucial protection measure,” Mr. Ding says. “Without school, young people are left feeling hopeless and become vulnerable to being exploited or abused.”
As well as providing essential school supplies like exercise books, chalk and pencils, UNICEF is training teachers to provide psychosocial support to the children in their care.
For a generation of children who have had their childhoods stolen from them by a cruel conflict, it may be their only chance for a hopeful future.