Some 250 schools have been occupied or looted during the recent fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), bringing the total number of schools affected by conflict this year to 600, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported today.
At least 240,000 students have missed weeks of schooling as a result of the conflict since April, the agency added in a news release.
Many of those fleeing last month's clashes between the national army and the 23 March Movement (M23) armed group in the eastern province of North Kivu found refuge in schools that were used as kitchens, canteens, dormitories, military barracks or ammunition storage places.
In almost all conflict-affected classrooms, school furniture has been partially damaged or totally destroyed, according to UNICEF. Textbooks and school benches have even been used as firewood.
"Last month access to education in eastern DRC has gone from bad to worse," stated the UNICEF Representative in DRC, Barbara Bentein. "Some schools that had already been affected in April haven't fully recovered yet. And now in other schools, the recent fighting has deprived Congolese children from access to education."
"Bringing them back to school is vital to their protection - especially in troubled times," she added. "When not at school, children from North Kivu are more at risk of being exploited, abused and even recruited."
The M23 occupied North Kivu's capital, Goma, for 11 days in November before withdrawing in accordance with requirements laid out in a communiqué issued by the regional group known as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
While there has been a lull in the fighting since then, the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, known by the French acronym MONUSCO, reports that the situation on the ground in North Kivu remains fragile.
UNICEF said that children and teachers are now slowly going back to school, and that children started receiving new school kits distributed by local partners last week. By the end of this year, 80,000 children from North Kivu will receive school kits currently being distributed by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF's partners, as schools resume their activities.
Many displaced families who began returning home are scared to send their children back to school, noted UNICEF, which called on all the parties involved in the fighting to vacate school buildings and ensure safe access to education for children.