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War is bad for kids

Conflicts inflict long-term damage on children's educations.

KITCHANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The morning after her father was shot and then hacked to death, Yvonne fled with her family.

They left the village where she had grown up, where the family had a home, possessions, land, crops and livestock, where she went to school and was doing well.

Three years later the family lives in one of thousands of plastic covered stick domes spread across fields of volcanic rock outside the town of Kitchanga in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“After my father was killed my mother struggled to pay school fees, but now none of us are attending,” said Yvonne, 16, who has nine siblings.

Yvonne is just one of an estimated 28 million children worldwide whose education and hopes for the future are blighted by conflict, according to a new study published today by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The report calls it the world’s “hidden crisis.”

“Children and education are not just getting caught in the crossfire, they are increasingly the targets of violent conflict,” said Kevin Watkins, the author of the report which details hundreds of attacks targeting schools in war zones across the world.

Yvonne used to go to secondary school, but when war forced her to flee, her education ended abruptly. Now she and her mother collect, transport and sell charcoal in Kitchanga market earning just about enough to eat. School fees are an unattainable dream.

“We have no means, so I have no hope of returning to school,” she said.

Among the 43,000 displaced people who have clustered around Kitchanga earning enough to eat takes precedence over education. “I can provide food or fees, not both,” said mother of four Nkawigomwa Batimazike.

The director of a local school where most of the pupils are displaced explained that this year, as every year, about a quarter of his nearly 800 children will drop out because they lack the required fees of $21 a year.

Waving his hand towards a bustling soot-covered market right next to the school Evariste Ndagijimana said: “The only way to make money here is to join the charcoal trade, that is where many of our dropouts go.”

Standing among a forest of grey sacks taller than he is, 12-year-old Albert is covered in coal dust from shoveling tiny handfuls of charcoal. His mother and sister work alongside him.

Once a week he makes the four-hour hike from the volcanic slopes of Virunga National Park to Kitchanga carrying heavy loads of charcoal. “I get very tired,” he whispered.