War is bad for kids

Young Congolese boys during a lesson at the Mugosi Primary School, which caters mostly for children of the Kahe refugee camp in the town of Kitschoro, in the north eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.</p>

Young Congolese boys during a lesson at the Mugosi Primary School, which caters mostly for children of the Kahe refugee camp in the town of Kitschoro, in the north eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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.

Albert went to primary school for two years before his family ran out of money and he went to work instead, helping to earn $3 for each 110 pound sack hauled out of the forest.

The sacks sell for $25 in Goma, 55 miles away, a drive that takes four hours along rutted roads that wind through a stunning landscape of green pasture and alpine forest.

“Children in conflict live with fear, isolation and instability,” said Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of charity Save the Children. “Many have been forced to flee their homes. These children, supported by their parents, desperately want to return to school.”

Here in eastern Congo fear of rape and sexual assault compounds the poverty that keeps girls from school. Last year there were 11,000 reported rapes but it is widely believed that the actual figure is much higher. Fear and stigma discourage many from reporting rape at all. Children are frequently targets.

Fourteen-year-old Marie was expelled from school when she became pregnant with the child of a man who raped her. “I liked going to school because it would give me the chance to become someone,” she said. “Everything changed when I gave birth to the child: I knew from that moment that nothing would be the same,” she said forlorn.

The UNESCO report calls for a special commission to be established on sexual violence and rape in conflict zones. The commission would be backed by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

It also criticizes a “broken” international aid system that fails to sufficiently fund education. “The abject failure of the development community to provide schooling and protection for school pupils in brutal war zones shames us all,” said Kailash Satyarthi, president of the Global Campaign for Education.

“Schooling and safety is what parents and children want most in such environments yet it is at the bottom of the list of what is provided,” he said.

Jolie Karine, 25, is already a mother of five. Her husband was killed three years ago so now she does the backbreaking work of a charcoal porter for a dollar a day.

“I never went to school so I know education is important for their future life,” she said standing with her children in front of the family's two-roomed stick-framed hut outside Kitchanga that had a straw mat for a door.

“It’s difficult: sometimes they drop out for a year before I can get the money for them to return to school. But,” she added with a smile, “if they study one might even become a doctor!”