Bamako — The ravages of Mali's conflict, which paralysed education for almost two years, have disrupted the start of a new school year in the country's north, where damaged schools, staff shortages and insecurity have set back learning.
Schools reopened across Mali in October. The government and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) launched a back-to-school campaign to help 500,000 children and 9,000 teachers restart schooling. Bamako also set up a scheme to pay civil servants to return to the country's north.
Northern Mali was overrun by Islamist militants and separatist rebels after the government was overthrown in Bamako in March 2012. The Islamists, who imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, were dislodged by French forces in January. However, security is yet to fully return to the region.
"Despite the measures taken by the government, many teachers have not yet resumed duty in Timbuktu," said Mody Abdoulaye Cissé, the Timbuktu education director. He explained that some teachers considered the US$500 government incentive to return to the north too small and felt that it was still unsafe to go back to the region.
"It's not only a question of money. It's a matter of life too. Everybody knows that the conflict is not over and there are suicide attackers everywhere. The government is putting the lives of teachers and pupils in danger by opening schools under such conditions. That is why I have decided not to return for the moment," said Sekou Sala Koné, a teacher in Timbuktu who is currently living in Bamako.
The conflict and the food crisis that hit the Sahel region in 2011-2012 kept some 800,000 Malian children out of school for two years, according to the education department. Even before the conflict, education levels in Mali were already low, with an estimated 1.2 million school-age children, most of them girls, not attending school.
"The major problem is that too many children have lost two years of schooling. This can have a carry-on impact of discouraging children from returning to school," David Gressly, the UN deputy representative in Mali and the humanitarian coordinator, told IRIN.
With the start of the new school year, learning in Timbuktu Region has resumed without severe disruptions. However, Mohamed Lamine, whose children just returned to school, said the lack of teachers has forced double shifts while the academic calendar has been skewed.
In the northern city of Gao, the teachers union has called for a strike over pay. Union leader Ibrahim Touré said that around half of the 2,597 teachers there had not been paid the return-to-work grant.
Schools have not even started in the northeastern Kidal region, where the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist Tuareg rebel group, exerts control.
"Here, in fact, schools have been closed since the start of the crisis... Thousands of children are deprived of their right to education," said Adama Kamissoko, the governor of Kidal.
Sixty-seven percent of schools in northern Mali were ransacked during the crisis. The militants occupied around a quarter of the schools in the region. A smaller percentage of school buildings was damaged or destroyed, according to UNICEF. Gao schools were looted the most.
The nine-month Islamist occupation wrecked public services, with hospitals, bank services, water and electricity only just resuming in most areas.
For Oumar Touré, a teacher who recently resumed duty in Timbuktu, "it is the future of these poor children that we should consider. They need us."
"I am not scared of the suicide bombers. You know, whether you are in Bamako, Sikasso or Kidal, you may still die," he told IRIN.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]