Congo-Brazzaville: Capital's Schools Still Shattered From March Explosion

Brazzaville — Three weeks after the new school year began in Brazzaville, many students in the capital of the Republic of the Congo have yet to attend a single class. The city is still trying to recover from a huge explosion at an arms dump in March. "I still haven't gone back to school," said 13-year-old Judicaëlle. Her family is among more than a hundred still living in tents at the Félix Eboué emergency shelter.

"My parents died in the explosions," she told IPS, "and my aunt still hasn't received the payment of three million CFA francs (around 6,000 dollars) that the government is giving each affected family."

The Mar. 4 explosion at an ammunition depot at the Mpila army base in the eastern part of the Congolese capital killed 280 people, according to official figures, with 1,500 seriously injured and thousands more left homeless.

Nancy, 18, is among another group of victims of the blast who have been housed at the Marchand Stadium. She has also dropped out of school.

"There are 20 students here, but we don't know how to go back to class. Our parents are already struggling just to feed us, and when we ask them about school, they won't even look at us," she told IPS.

Among those living at the stadium are people waiting to receive the 6,000 dollar grant the government announced it would pay to each family affected by the disaster. This has left them in a vulnerable position.

"The explosions put me out of work, and my wife saw all her merchandise smashed. No one has come to help us," said Michel Bobenda, a carpenter whose workshop was destroyed by the blast. "How can we cover the cost of school for the children?"

The United Nations Children's Fund handed out 400 back-to-school kits at the Cité des 17 shelter. But not all the students who got them are satisfied.

"I'm in high school, and UNICEF is giving out little notebooks meant for preschool and primary. I don't know what to do," said Jonas Doungou, who was only able to register for classes at a technical school thanks to a good samaritan. "What's more, to get from here to school costs me at last 900 CFA (around two dollars) a day for transport. Where will I find that?"

Dozens of other students from the 5 Février Technical School face the same problem. They've all been transferred to the 1 Mai school downtown.

"Transport is a problem," said Juste Iniambe, a first year student, "but the government isn't doing anything. It's crazy!"

A total of 22,000 children, from preschool through high school, were affected by the Mpila disaster. The government agreed to pay a monthly transport allowance of 20 dollars per student, but this has proved insufficient for many youngsters who have to travel long distances to reach the schools they've been reassigned to.

But the authorities are taking action. Some schools in neighbouring areas that had fallen into disrepair have been rehabilitated. Their capacity has also been increased to accommodate students displaced from around Mpila; for example, the Fleuve Congo School has had 25 classrooms renovated.

Work has also been carried out at the Pierre Ntsiété Primary School, where Lucie Georgette Nguekoua is director. "We actually have extra classrooms now," she told IPS. "It's a shame that we had to wait for people to die before refitting these buildings."

On the other hand, the schools destroyed in the explosion remain in ruins. At the 31 Juillet School, engineer Abdramane Batcheli told IPS that rebuilding would take time.

"We will rebuild both buildings, including the upstairs, and put up a third one. We have just started on the walls," he said.

Many private schools are also still piles of rubble while their owners wait for compensation from the government.

The 1,400 students at Lycée de la Révolution have been transferred to Agostino Neto High School.

Many students transferred to other functioning schools are still unfortunately missing class. "We have two classrooms for students from 31 Juillet, but most of them are not coming in," Georges Otaha, director of the Fleuve Congo School, told IPS.

In addition, 480 teachers have been trained to provide psychological care for students who were victims of the explosions. "We will set up groups for psychosocial support at the level of individual schools," Jean Clotaire Tomby, the director general for social affairs, commented to IPS.

Civil society organisations say the government has to fulfill its responsibility for support for all affected students.

"The state is responsible for what happened, so it has to fix it. School materials, meeting the costs of displacement and providing moral support must be guaranteed for these students," said Roch Euloge N'zobo, executive director of the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation based in Brazzaville.

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