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Amidst chaos and confusion, education provides some sense of normalcy for Abyei’s ‎displaced children‎

Juoljok Primary School in Agok
© UNICEF Sudan/2008/Jenn Warren
Juoljok Primary School in Agok, Southern Sudan

By Jo Dunlop, UNICEF Southern Sudan Area Programme

AGOK, Sudan, 3 October 2008.  Deng Ring, 18, is one of the many new students at ‎Juoljok Primary School in Agok, Southern Sudan, who fled their homes in Abyei, 45 km ‎to the north following fighting in the town.‎

‎“I really want to finish my primary education, that is my hope for this year,” says Deng. ‎During times of conflict and in situations of displacement, education helps restore a sense ‎of routine, addressing the immediate needs of young people like Deng. ‎

A peace agreement signed in January 2005 ended decades of civil war between a ‎Khartoum-based government and rebel fighters in Southern Sudan, and established the ‎Government of National Unity and a semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan. ‎However, conflict still affects parts of Sudan. Abyei is just one area where tensions ‎remain; tensions that flared into full-scale fighting between the Sudan People’s ‎Liberation Army and the Sudan Armed Forces in May this year.

The violence virtually destroyed Abyei town and displaced 50,000 local residents. ‎Thousands of children were affected and their schooling put in danger of being ‎interrupted.‎

Monica Achol and Deng Ring sitting near Juoljok Primary School in Agok
© UNICEF Sudan/2008/Jo Dunlop
Monica Achol and Deng Ring sitting near Juoljok Primary School in Agok, Southern Sudan

‎‘We are safe here for now’

Deng and his classmate Monica Achol had their lives thrown into turmoil the day the ‎conflict began in Abyei. Both children fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. ‎They have now settled temporarily in Agok. ‎

‎“I left Abyei with my mother, but we lost my father in the fighting,” Deng recalls sadly. ‎‎“I felt so angry and so bad, but things are getting better. We are safe here for now, but I ‎want to return to Abyei – it is my homeland.”‎

Monica left Abyei under similar circumstances. After the fighting erupted, she ran into ‎the bush to escape. She then walked for a day before reaching Agok, where she was ‎reunited with her parents. But she remains anxious about the safety of her grandmother.‎

‎“I have heard many stories of people being killed in the fighting and people being ‎separated from their families,” says Monica. “I am not sure where my grandmother is, as ‎she was too old to come with us. I hope she is still in Abyei. I miss her.”‎

Classes held outdoors

The opportunity to continue classes has given Deng, Monica and hundreds of students ‎like them a measure of stability in the face of an uncertain future. ‎

Juoljok Primary School currently has 836 registered students, 300 of whom have arrived ‎in the past three months from Abyei. Like many schools in Southern Sudan, Juoljok ‎conducts most of its classes under trees. During the lengthy wet season, they are ‎frequently cancelled.‎

Headmaster Peter Majok Deng is determined to support the new students. He is ‎concerned, however, about overcrowding and the continuing lack of resources. ‎

Waiting for peace to return

‎“Every day we are welcoming new students to the school, and it is our duty to help these ‎children,” he said at the height of the crisis. “But we are short on teachers and already our ‎classes are mostly under trees. I am thankful to UNICEF for all they have given us. It ‎makes a difference to our teachers and students.”‎

UNICEF has provided emergency school tents to the Juoljok school to accommodate its ‎extra students. Learning essentials such as exercise books, blackboards and pens have ‎also been distributed. These tools are traditionally the first steps in restoring schools and ‎the education system in Sudan.‎

Slowly, people are beginning to return to Abyei now that peace has returned to the town. ‎In the meantime, as that process continues, for those children still camped in and around ‎Agok going to school is something they can count on.



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