Some schools begin to reopen in restive Central African Republic

 
Most schools have been closed for months in the Central African Republic, where growing lawlessness and sectarian tensions have led French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to warn that the country may be on the “brink of a genocide”. However, a few brave districts, with the help of charitable organisations, are slowly reopening their schools, despite facing challenges every step of the way.
 
Our Observers tell us that tensions remain high in the capital, Bangui, but that violence is everywhere. Members of the Seleka rebellion - which has been officially disbanded - continue to loot civilians’ homes at will, and frequently torture them to obtain ransoms. Many angry civilians have created self-defence militias. The resulting clashes have stoked sectarian tensions, as the ex-Seleka rebels are predominantly Muslim, while the majority of the population is Christian. According to the UN refugee agency, about 395,000 people throughout the country have been displaced by the fighting.
 
Children in a schoolyard in Bozoum. All videos and photos courtesy of our Observer Aurelio Grazzera.
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“We can’t just give in to fear and let these children get behind on their studies. If we do, what will happen to them later?”

Jonas Nodjitouloum is the head of the school district in Bozoum, a city in western Central African Republic.
 
We have re-opened all eight public schools in Bozoum, and created a new one for about 500 displaced children who have recently arrived here with their families. Classes just started again last week, thanks to donations from several charities including Caritas and humanitarian aid from the Czech Republic. They’ve given us notebooks, pens, blackboards, chalk, and even school uniforms.
 
Distribution of school supplies in Bozoum's classes for children displaced by the fighting. 
 
It hasn’t been easy getting children back in the classroom – we have had to carry out a big campaign to convince parents to let them return. I and other teachers and volunteer parents have gone around with megaphones to announce the schools’ reopening, and have talked to many concerned parents who worry about their children leaving home. They say, ‘We hear gunshots’, and indeed we do hear gunshots around Bozoum, but we explain to them that these clashes have nothing to do with the kids, that they’ll be just as safe at school as they are at home. One thing that helps convince the parents is that kids get free school lunches, also thanks to donations. This really helps them out, since the economic situation here is catastrophic and the crops have been very bad this year.
 
Schoolchildren in Bozoum, many of them wearing new uniforms.
 
What I tell these kids’ parents is that, no matter how bad things get, children need to go to school. Education is a fundamental right. We can’t just give in to fear and let these children get behind on their studies. If we do, what will happen to them later?
 
“We reminded teachers that what they do is not just a job, it is a calling, and the kids need them now more than ever”
 
We have also faced difficulties getting teachers to go back to work. During the last school year, they often went unpaid for months. This remains a problem, since the state is very weak, but we reminded them that being a teacher is not just a job, it is a calling, and the kids need them now more than ever. They are willing to make sacrifices, but we really hope the state is able to pay them soon, or they may lose their motivation.
 
A packed elementary school classroom.
 
Another hardship we have faced is with the displaced children. They are very rowdy, and can’t be mixed in with the other kids. They have gone through a lot – many of their families lost everything when they fled. Their homes were burned or looted. Most kids don’t even have ID papers. They are taught in separate classes, in the afternoons, with teachers that were recruited specifically for this purpose. Some of these teachers came from far away, and we are very anxious for them to receive their salaries so that they are able to pay their rents and stay here.
 
 
Several dozen schools have also reopened in the nearby towns of Bossemptele, Bohong, and Herba, thanks to funding from UNICEF. But most public schools in the country, including in the capital Bangui, remained shut. Private Catholic ones, which are better able to pay their teachers, have fared better.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).
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