Bamako/Timbuktu/Dakar — Children returned to school in Timbuktu in northern Mali on 1 February, a week after Islamist groups fled.
Teachers say about half of all schoolchildren fled northern Mali in 2012 when Islamist groups took over much of the north and shut down many public schools, dismantled the curricula in others, and sent some children to Koranic schools.
"You cannot imagine the joy I felt in returning to this classroom," said director of Timbuktu's main primary school, Coulibaly Ami Doucaré. She abandoned the school last April when Timbuktu was taken over by Islamist group Ansar Dine.
"It's important we save this school year. We'll do everything we can to catch up, even if we have to study on Sundays," she said, appealing to all teachers who fled to return. A campaign to recruit volunteer primary school teachers has signed up 12 so far.
Aminata Touré, a student in the 9th class, told IRIN: "First of all, I feel like I've been let out of prison. I can walk around town, I can dress as I like - look, I'm wearing jeans. My second joy is that I have been reunited with my class, my friends, my teachers and my school-books. I thought the school year was ruined, but now I will be able to pass my diploma and go to the lycée next year." Most Timbuktu schoolchildren lost at least four months of the school year.
Mamadou Mangara, governor of Timbuktu Region, encouraged parents to do all they could to help repair schools so that all can reopen.
Many schools were destroyed in Timbuktu and Gao, with tables and benches looted or damaged. Education network Education For All and local NGO Cri de Coeur have ordered 100 school desks and benches, as well as notebooks and pens to be sent to schools in the north, said Cri de Coeur president Almahady Cissé.
Half of the 5,000 students at the Teaching Academy of Timbuktu have fled to central and southern Mali or to neighbouring countries, according to a teacher there, Mamadou Camara. The Ministry of Education estimated at the end of 2012 that 10,000 displaced children from the north had no access to education.
In addition to help with school repairs, other priorities for Timbuktu's residents are to repair dozens of damaged health centres and bring in fuel to run the electricity and water supply, said Timbuktu mayor Hallé Maïga.
Food insecurity in the north is mounting due to disrupted supply routes and shortages of staple products, according to aid agencies. Earlier assessments by the UN World Food Programme indicated that 585,000 northern Malians were food-insecure out of an estimated population of 1.3 million.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]