Teachers, parents and education officials in Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden, are hoping the newly started school year will be the first in three years to be uninterrupted by humanitarian crises, political disruption or conflict.
The optimism follows the return of at least 162,253 internally displaced people (IDPs) back to conflict-hit Abyan Governorate.
Many of the IDPs had been housed in schools in neighbouring governorates like Aden since 2011, when al-Qaeda-linked militants chased the army out of Abyan, proclaiming an Islamic caliphate and causing large numbers of residents - including almost the entire population of the provincial capital Zinjibar - to flee.
The IDPs were initially welcomed in Aden, particularly by the youth-led Arab Spring protestors then calling for a regime change, who opened the school gates for the displaced. The IDPs were later supported by the authorities, as well. But what was expected to be a temporary emergency solution turned into more than two years of school closures and disruptions.
In addition to the Arab Spring protests and the conflict in Abyan, a third complication was added this year, with the eruption of regular civil disobedience demonstrations by a movement calling for an independent south.
“With the Arab Spring, and then IDPs and then civil disobedience, it’s been a sorry time for children,” said Mohammed Al-Abbi, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) education officer in Aden. “Now, we have a lot of children going back to schools - at least this year we can see things as moving.”
But major challenges remain. Some IDPs continue to occupy school sites, and many schools that have been returned to education authorities are in need of major rehabilitation. And there could be further disruptions stemming from Yemen’s current delayed political transition, particularly if an agreement on the new constitution is not reached.
The years of disruption have already had an impact on children’s learning. “We now have children in grades three and four who cannot read and write,” said Al-Abbi.
According to his estimates, only around 60 percent of the school curriculum was taught in the 2010-2011 school year, barely 40 percent the following year and 60 percent last year. IRIN took a closer look at the situation.
Why did the IDPs use the schools in the first place?
When the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia took control of Abyan Governorate in 2011, a wave of people fled west. Many of those without the means to rent accommodation moved into public schools; 74 public schools in Aden Governorate and 39 in Lahj Governorate housed IDPs at the height of the displacement.
Although the city of Aden has some empty public buildings from its days as the capital of an independent South Yemen - between 1967 and 1990 - few were in a state suitable to shelter IDPs. The schools, which were closed for the 2011 summer break when large numbers started arriving, seemed an obvious choice to provide temporary shelter.
But at the end of the summer holiday, no new solution to IDP housing had been found, and so to keep the education system going, officials combined school populations in shared buildings and introduce double or even triple shifts of classes.
And in 2012, fresh fighting displaced even more people from Abyan, pushing more IDPs into Aden schools.
Education quality declined, say officials, and the planned intake of new children into the first grade had to be scrapped - a hard pill to swallow in a city proud of having one of the oldest modern education systems in the region.
The IDPs were registered by the government. After the conflict ended in June 2012, some IDPs started returning home, and the number of schools used as IDP shelters gradually diminished to just one school in each of Aden’s eight districts, allowing emptied schools to gradually revert to education facilities.
Why are some IDPs still in the schools?
The last few weeks have seen rising tensions between education authorities, who want to see all schools freed of IDPs, and the 90-odd IDP families who continue to live in a handful of school sites, including a high school that normally caters for 1,000 students.
“In the beginning, they [the community] were very welcoming and they themselves opened the schools and provided aid,” said Abdullah Fadl Salim, a retired security official-turned-IDP from Zinjibar who still lives in a school in Aden and says it is not safe for him to return home.
“Any solution was acceptable - that’s why we came to Aden. The majority didn’t have funds to rent, so we set up tents and camps in schools.”
He says there has been a recent rise in harassment from the local authorities wanting to use the schools: “We are not animals who need to be forced, who can be thrown on the streets! We are not comfortable. We want solutions as to where to go.”
The head of the government’s executive unit for IDPs in southern Yemen, Col Abdullah Mohammed Al-Duhaimi, told IRIN that the IDPs had lost some of the goodwill they encountered when they first arrived. The executive unit said those remaining in the schools are not entitled to stay there, and many have received letters to warning them to leave.
Following a government request, the World Food Programme stopped distributing food rations to IDPs remaining in Aden in February, encouraging many to move back to Abyan, where aid distributions continue. Some of Aden’s IDPs told IRIN they travel to Abyan to pick up the rations, which they sell for cash before returning to Aden.
Those who remain in Aden say the reconstruction funds for Abyan returnees are not sufficient to allow them to rebuild their lives. They say they have lost their livelihoods in the conflict or that it is still not safe to return. They are frequently among the most vulnerable - many previously lived in rented accommodation in Abyan and depend on daily work, which is more plentiful in Aden.
Police forces have yet to return to Abyan. Instead, security is largely in the hands of so-called popular committees - armed groups supported by the government to keep the governorate free of Islamist militants.
“Peace hasn’t returned yet because [we are] under popular committees. These committees - they might take your children today and tomorrow they say it wasn’t them,” said Abdullah Masq Saleh, one of the IDPs remaining in Aden. “We won’t return to our home. We don’t want to go back and still be in a difficult situation,” he said.
Einas Mohammed Ali, an IDP and mother of six young children, says her husband grew mentally unstable during the Abyan conflict, and is now unable to support them. She now cleans people’s homes in Aden to support her family, which still lives in a school building.
What happened to the schools emptied of IDPs?
The return of the vast majority of IDPs in Aden and Lahj has been welcomed by the authorities, though the empty schools were often stripped of even the most basic fixtures and fittings like taps and pipes. Classrooms were often partitioned into bedrooms, and many doors were burned as fire wood. In many schools, latrines and sewage facilities are flooded from overuse, creating health risks.
By November, all schools formerly occupied by IDPs were open in Lahj, and 48 of the 76 schools in Aden were functioning.
The government’s Social Fund for Development has been working on the rehabilitation of nearly a hundred crisis-affected schools in the region; 40 in Aden, 30 in Lahj and 22 in Abyan.
UNICEF has also carried out minor repairs on 32 schools in Aden, and says a major rehabilitation programme is due to start in the coming weeks, with money from the Global Partnership for Education Fund. Internal building work will be prioritized to reduce disruption to the current school year.
What risk do the civil disobedience and political disruptions still pose?
Campaigners in the movement for southern independence, known as al-Hirak, have enforced two days a week of civil disobedience since the start of the National Dialogue process in March.
According to estimates published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in May, the protests prevented an estimated 50,000 children in Aden Governorate from travelling to school, with teachers fearful of attacks. Some armed protestors entered school premises.
The demonstrations also delayed the rehabilitation of school sites.
Following negotiations between the protestors and education authorities in May, the al-Hirak movement agreed to allow 255,730 students from Aden, Lahj and Abyan take their end-of-year exams.
This school year, the protestors have agreed to allow schools to open on protest days, which start at 8:30 in the morning, after children have travelled to their schools.