Sudan: Education Undone – School Bombings Drive a Generation Out of the Classroom
All Africa, July 30, 2014
The renewed conflict in South Kordofan has pushed many children out of the classroom into the refugee camps or the rebellion. With every year and every lesson missed, the hopes for a new generation – nurtured in the brief peace from 2005 to 2011 – fade.
Howa James is one of this generation. Before the war reignited in the Nuba Mountains in June 2011, Howa was a student at the Girls’ Peace High School in Kauda. Peace High School is a boarding school, but Howa’s family lives next door, so teachers allowed her to sleep at home.
Howa loved her time at Peace High. As the war intensified, she and her classmates tried to continue on with their lives. But they soon found themselves caught in the middle.
“I heard the sound of the jet and when I looked up, I saw the plane dropping bombs on me,” she said. “I didn’t have time to run but I found a small hole near me and I got in it. The bomb exploded 10 meters from me.” Howa told her story as she stood next to the huge crater created by a bomb that nearly killed her. She hasn’t been to school since that day over two years ago.
Education and Culture
Education is at the core of the Nubans’ cultural values. For all the damage war has done in the Nuba Mountains, the destruction and shuttering of the schools have hit the communities hardest.
Before the war, Hundreds of members of a community would volunteer their time, money and crops to build and fund community schools and their students. Towns even pooled funds to fly in teachers from Kenya.
Early in the war, students would sit for final examinations with a rock on their desk. If an Antonov flew overhead, the rock held their papers in place while they hid in foxholes.
At the end of each year, the schools would hold a celebration for the entire village. The teachers call the students’ names one by one and present them with handwritten certificates confirming they’ve passed their classes.
As the name of each child is called his parents run and dance towards toward her. The mother sings a song praising her and the father slaps 5 Sudanese Pounds ($1) to her head. The five pounds stick to the student’s sweaty scalp as if she is wearing a crown for her achievements. For many communities these celebrations have stopped and it is no longer safe to bring in teachers.
Before the war, there were 255 schools in the Nuba Mountains. Now there are less than 100. none are able to provide the same level of education as they did before the war. There are not enough teachers to provide instruction for all 8 grades, books are rare and there are few resources to help with lessons.
According to SPLM-N Minister of Education Tajani Tima, 10 national and international organizations were supporting education in the region but now only two of these organizations are willing to help the schools. “The education budget for the state is significantly lower than years of peace,” Tajani said in his characteristically circumspect manner. “Teachers have fled the region and there is a high student dropout rate because most schools can’t continue to operate due to the ground fighting and increased bombing.”
Many schoolyards within the SPLM-N controlled areas have been targeted by the Sudanese government in its near-daily aerial bombardment. Bombs have landed near the Girls’ Peace High School on several occasions. But on the morning of December 29, 2012 an Antonov flew over, dropping bombs and finally hitting the school.
Jawahir Yusif was studying there at the time. “Six bombs were dropped on the school. It destroyed one of the classrooms and the dormitories for the girls,” she said, adding:
“The students and teachers are scared that if the government hears that many people are in one location like the school that they will send a plane to bomb us.”
School officials said they had no choice but to shut down.
The only other option for many students are the refugee camps in South Sudan. Families have sent their children hundreds of kilometers to Yida, home to over 70,000 refugees from South Kordofan.
According to UNHCR, Yida is too close to the Sudanese border and the conflict the refugees left behind. Unless the camp can be moved further south, the organization says it cannot provide education.
The only schools operating in Yida camp are elementary schools that have been started by the refugees themselves with minimal outside funding. These schools serve thousands of students under trees and small grass huts and do not have the resources to pay their teachers well or provide textbooks. Still, the students walk days to the camps at the start of each term and sit in the sweltering heat for a chance to learn.
UNHCR does support elementary and high school education in the Ajoung Thok Camp about 60 km from Yida. Despite the efforts of UNHCR to convince the refugees to move from Yida to Ajoung Thok most families have been reluctant. Only around 13,000 have settled in in Ajuong Thok. Some students opt to go there without their families but there still aren’t enough schools for all the students in Yida or South Kordofan who need education.
The Next Generation
But no matter how difficult it may be, the people are determined to educate their children. Oum Juma worked as a teacher in Yida during it’s first year of existence. Like many teachers here, she refuses to let the conflict take her daughter’s childhood the way the earlier conflict took hers. She was separated from her family by Sudan’s war with the south, which ran from 1983 to 2005 and eventually saw South Sudan split from the north.
She was raised and educated in a missionary school, and didn’t see her mother until after the peace deal in 2005. Since then, she’s become a mother herself. When fighting broke out she fled the carnage with her infant child. She made it to Yida, but her husband disappeared.
“My whole life has been war, since I was a child, 24 years, that is how old I am,” she said. “I just focus on these children. I want them to know right and wrong.”
For all that she has experienced Oum Juma does not want revenge. She believes education can bring peace to her children and the next generation of Nubans. “Education cannot stop the war, but this generation must understand the problems. The children may say my mother was killed and now I want revenge. ‘I want to kill those who killed my mom,’ an 8 year old thinks this. But that thinking just starts another war. If they understand they can think of a new future, there are many ways of solving problems.”