The day the rebels arrived was still fresh in the memory of 10-year-old Mohammed Kone. Suddenly, there had been gunshots. Just as suddenly, his uncle - and guardian - had disappeared. He had run off, leaving his ward alone with the maid. The frightened girl accompanied Mohammed to the home of another uncle and, together, they fled Bouake.
That was on the 19th of September, the day when the rebels staged an uprising in Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, Abidjan, and took over towns in the north and centre of the country, including Bouake. Mohamed had just gone from CE2 (Class 4) to CM1 (Class 5) at the Boliba Primary School. Now, instead of preparing for school, he was on the road.
Their flight from Bouake took them first to Sakassou, 50 km to the south. They did the journey on foot. From Sakassou, they walked to the town of Tiebissou, 40 km on, but had to go through the bush so as to escape detection by armed men. From there they were able to find a vehicle that took them to the capital, Yamassoukro.
Like Mohamed, hundreds of thousands of children throughout Cote d’Ivoire are “deplaces”-displaced persons- forced from their homes by the war between loyalist forces and rebels. The insecurity in their areas meant that they could no longer go to school. Helping them to continue their education is among the aims of the ‘Retour des Enfants a l’Ecole’ [Back to school] campaign, which the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched in Yamoussoukro on 13 February.
As part of the campaign, UNICEF donated school supplies and recreational equipment for 5,000 pupils at the Ngokro School in Yamoussoukro. The supplies include teachers’ books, maps, rules T-squares and compasses. The donation includes more than one million CFA francs (US $16,500) in cash. Other schools are also to benefit from the project, which targets more than 130,000 children at a cost of about US $1 million.
UNICEF plans to motivate the international community and donors to get them to contribute to the education sector and thus enable the children to enjoy one of their basic rights, the right to schooling.
Another contributor to the initiative is the Education Ministry, which plans to involve teachers displaced from areas now under rebel control in the project. The ministry estimates that schools in the Yamoussoukro area need about 140 teachers, whom it plans to recruit from among the displacees.
UNE will also run an education programme aimed at inculcating peace and tolerance in the children, using US $147,000 donated by the French UNICEF Committee. The idea, said UNICEF Regional Director Rima Salah, is to make the children become peace messengers so as to contribute to the prevention of conflicts and curb various social risks.
“Instead of the weapons that have been distributed to children, we want pencils, pens and paper to fire on poverty,” 10-year-old Adjoua Florence Yao said at the handing-over ceremony. She too was displaced from Bouake. She was also part of a first batch of 980 pupils registered at the Ngokro Primary School for the start of the special school year for displaced children, which began in January. [For other children, the school year began in October.]
Adjoua was happy to be in school, but she missed Bouake, which she fled with her parents when the fighting broke out. She would like to go back to see the school mates she left there, she said.
Mohammed found one of his friends in Yamoussoukro. At first he found it hard to make friends at Ngokro Primary School “because when they came up to me they wanted to know what the rebels looked like”. He avoided the other children since he had no desire to talk about the ordeal of his escape from the town. He simply wanted to forget the gunshots; the fear of meeting rebels with masks over their faces; the three days and nights spent in the bush before arriving in Yamoussoukro, where he found some of his other relatives.
Still scarred by his three-day nightmare, he would like to erase his former home town from his memory.
“I don’t ever want to return to Bouake,” he says.