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