When schools are casualties of war

BBC News, July 3, 2012

Avegaile Escano will never forget the day that Muslimin, 16, entered her class in a hut in southern Philippines.

The hut had bamboo walls and coconut leaves for a roof and had been built to give children who had fled fighting between government troops and armed militants in Maguindanao.

It was meant to provide a safe and friendly learning space where children could regain a semblance of normal life and continue to develop through learning.

But for some children leaving their troubles behind was too much to ask and the stress sometimes manifested itself in peculiar ways.

In Muslimin’s case, he sought comfort in a white plastic chair. Each morning he would come into class holding the same chair and carry it around with him all day, wherever he went. He would not let it go.

Holding on

During lessons he would frequently pace up and down along the inside of the bamboo walls of the classroom, always carrying the chair.

“When a volunteer asked him to sit down, he sat but after a while he would get up and walk again, bringing his chair,” says Ms Escano, 30, a former education project leader with Save the Children International in Central Mindanao.

The education volunteers are trained how to communicate with stressed children.

Bit by bit they earned the confidence of Muslimin and he began to share his experiences and counselling was brought in.

At first he said both his parents were dead. All he remembered was the sound of heavy gunfire, not knowing where to run and then seeing shots being exchanged.

Later the volunteers discovered that Muslimin’s mother was still alive, but his father had died of a heart attack brought on by the stress of fleeing their thatched house, which had been caught in cross fire and gone up in flames.

“He was clinging on to his chair as his protection,” says Ms Escano, “because he wanted to make sure it will not be lost again, like his father, like his house. It comforted him.”

Displaced children

Muslimin’s symptoms are one of many displayed by children suffering psychologically from the impact of war, whether from seeing fighting all around them or experiencing direct attacks themselves.

Disturbed behaviour, wetting themselves, staring into space, restlessness, naughtiness and violence are common.

And in schools and temporary learning shelters the first challenge of the teachers is to try to bring back a sense of normal life which in turn can help lead to normalised behaviour.

Another is to identify those children who need to be referred for expert medical treatment – if such treatment is available.

War reporting focuses on gunfights and shelling, the immediate effects such as death and injuries, displacement of civilians and the political significance of the battles won and lost. But when the fighting is over the cameras move on.

Little attention is paid to the catastrophic effect war can have on students and teachers. It can undermine for years the crucial role of education as a foundation stone for building peace and bringing economic and social development.

Schools in rubble

In poor countries wars are rarely a short sharp military operation.

They last 12 years on average, according to UNESCO. For all that time head teachers and teachers can be battling in difficult conditions to keep any semblance of education going as schools are destroyed and families and teachers are forced to flee their homes to avoid the fighting.

For the education system, tracking the whereabouts of teachers and ensuring they are allotted to a nearby school and are getting paid is a serious challenge. Rebuilding and re-supplying schools can takes years to complete.

In the meantime, whole age cohorts of children in conflict areas may miss out on their schooling.

In Sierra Leone in 2001 only 13% of schools were deemed usable after the 12-year conflict. Many had been reduced to rubble. Three years later 60% of primary schools still needed major repair work or complete reconstruction.

Worldwide 28 million children are missing out on primary education in conflict-affected countries.

In many wars education is not just collaterally damaged but has become a target for attack itself with classrooms deliberately shelled and teachers tracked down and assassinated.

Direct attacks

In June, the UN Secretary General’s Annual Report to the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict reported that in 2011 there was a pattern of direct attacks on schools, students and teachers in more than 15 countries affected by conflict, with Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, India, Pakistan and Yemen among the worst affected.

Incidents included full-scale military assaults on schools; the bombing, burning and shelling of school buildings; the shooting or abduction of students and teachers; and the seizure of schools for use as sniper posts, torture and interrogation centres or military bases.

For the first time the secretary general named and shamed five armed groups or forces responsible for perpetrating such attacks, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Syrian Armed Forces.

There are two avenues for action to try and tackle this problem. One is to try to hold perpetrators to account.

To this end Zama Coursen-Neff, chairperson of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack and children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, has welcomed the inclusion of parties guilty of attacks on schools on the UN’s new “list of shame”.

She said: “From now on, warring parties who target schools, students, and teachers should know that they will land on the Security Council’s radar and could face targeted sanctions.”

The Security Council may also refer them to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution.

Community defence

The other avenue is to ensure better steps are taken to prevent the targeting of education and ensure timely recovery once conflicts are over.

The global Education Cluster, a UN body that co-ordinates and guides education responses in conflicts and other crises, is working with humanitarian agencies and government officials in countries affected by conflict to pilot training in how to protect education.

Measures include improving community defence of schools, encouraging armed forces and armed groups to avoid using schools in the battlefield, changing unfair education policies that provoke ethnic tension and can make schools a target for attack.

They could also change the curriculum to ensure that education works for peace and ensure adequate support is provided to help children and teachers cope with stress and trauma.

At a piloting session in Pakistan, education and development officials simulated negotiations between leaders of a village, teachers, religious leaders and the local Taliban commander.

Their mission was to reach agreement that locals schools should not be blown up – or attacked in any other way.

More than 1,200 schools have been damaged or destroyed in their country in the past few years and mostly in the north-west, where Taliban groups have been fighting the Pakistan army and retain a strong influence in some areas.

Peace zone

The role-play exercise draws on the real experience of communities in Nepal who negotiated for the conflict between Maoist and Royalists to be left outside of the school gates.

In Pakistan the heated discussion centred on parents’ fears for their children’s lives and the religious leader and Taliban commander’s concerns that schools were not teaching or working by Islamic principles.

The head teacher sought to steer all parties to agreeing to respect schools as a zone of peace in return for reassurances that certain Islamic principles would be met.

For instance, although girls and boys could attend the school they would only do so in separate shifts one after the other.

Among the key aims of the Education Cluster training is to try to find ways to persuade military commanders to change the way they conduct war on the battlefield by ending the use of schools as military bases, which makes them a target for attack, puts children at risk of being caught in the crossfire, and causes long-term damage to education provision.

“Schools should be safe places, where parents know their children can play and learn, and prepare for the future,” says James Sparkes, the Education Cluster co-ordinator.

“Anything we can do to help protect them will improve the chances of those communities being able to rebuild when the conflict ends.”

Brendan O’Malley is author of Education under Attack, UNESCO’s study on targeted political and military violence against education.