27 January 2014

South Sudan: Despite War, Displaced Students Sit for Exams

In Juba, the outbreak of war was no excuse for over 500 students to skip their final exams.

At the IDP camp of the United Nations compound in Juba, 27-year old Kueth Machar sits for the primary school exam next to his father, Michael Machar, 48.

"If I pass the exam I want to go to school and learn English. Maybe I'll become a teacher," says Kueth.

"Where I grew up there were no schools," says Michael. "If things are going to improve in South Sudan we need educated people. I'm taking the exam to give my children a better future, and for my country."

Years of conflict mean that many people, like the Machars, have not had access to the schooling they are entitled to.

"In my village, all the young boys stayed in the bush with the animals. I was always out tending the family's cows. There was very little time for school. I never had the chance to sit for the exam," explains Kueth.

Father and son are just two of the over half a million people in South Sudan that have been displaced by a month of fighting between rebels and government forces. Over five days, more than 500 displaced students who live at UN bases in Juba joined thousands of Central Equatorial State youth in taking their primary school leaving exams. Originally scheduled for 16 December, the exams were postponed when fighting broke out between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and anti-government forces on 15 December. Local schools where the exams were supposed to be held had to close.

Education delayed or denied

At the UN compound, a makeshift bar, usually a watering hole for the local staff, has been turned into a classroom. The students sit at wooden desks. Local teachers, also displaced residents of the nearby camp, hand out sheets of loose leaf. The exams are being administered under the auspices of UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Although this is a primary school graduation exam, many of the students are somewhere between ages 17 and 19. Some, like the Machars, are much older, as the schooling of children in what was then southern Sudan was interrupted during years of conflict with the north.

Those now taking their exams were hoping to catch up, but the recent fighting set them back further.

"Many rural areas in South Sudan lack even primary schools. Now schools have closed again because of the fighting that started in Juba in mid-December and later spread across the country," explains Simon Mphisa, head of communication at UNICEF.

Not conducive to scholarship

Dusty. Congested. People move in and out of the camp in a steady stream. One part of the area has transformed into a virtual market space with women selling vegetables, soft drinks and pieces of dough fried in sizzling oil. Young men haggle over mattresses, pieces of wood and plastic sheeting with the humanitarian logos.

As Kueth observes: "Food is scarce and there are not enough tents for everyone. Every day new people arrive."

The camp is hardly conducive to scholarship.

"The camp is too crowded. Preparing for the exam was very difficult. The night before I could hardly sleep because there was gunfire coming from the army barracks next to the camp," he says.

But many do not dare to leave out of fear that the same people who attacked on the day they fled will come after them again.

"I had to leave my schoolbooks behind when I fled," recalls Kueth. "It's not safe to go back and get them, if they are still in the house. I heard many homes have been looted by the soldiers."

Peace in South Sudan?

Very few youth in the camp believe the fighting will stop anytime soon, or that there will ever be long-lasting peace between political factions or ethnic groups. Among the doubtful is 17-year-old Sunday Ulang, who had fled to the UN compound when the fighting started.

She remembers the day: "The soldiers were shooting all around us. People were coming from everywhere. In a few hours the ground between the airport and the city was full of people."

"Many people died that the day. Three of my friends were shot as they tried to escape," she says.

Later she learned that her uncle was among those killed in the crossfire. But Ulang is now taking the exam, too. If she passes, she wants to continue on to university and become a doctor.

"I want to help my people," she says.

But she's not entirely optimistic.

"Both sides will continue fighting until there is nothing left to fight for. I don't believe in peace in South Sudan," says Ulang.

Handing in her exam, she adds: "Let them kill each other as long as they leave us alone."

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