Sat | Jan 23, 2021

Students fear extremists more than COVID-19

Published:Saturday | November 28, 2020 | 12:06 AM
Balkissa Barro (centre), 10, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Children returning to school in Burkina Faso’s volatile Sahel region, have to practice safety drills to prepare for potential jiha
Balkissa Barro (centre), 10, walks to school with friends in the Burkina Faso village of Dori on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Children returning to school in Burkina Faso’s volatile Sahel region, have to practice safety drills to prepare for potential jihadist attacks that have ravaged the West African nation, killing more than 2,000 people this year.
Children practice security drills at school in the village of Dori, Burkina Faso, on Tuesday, October 20, 2020.
Children practice security drills at school in the village of Dori, Burkina Faso, on Tuesday, October 20, 2020.
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DORI, Burkina Faso (AP):

Balkissa Barro has been waiting for months to go back to school, but, now that she has, the 10-year-old fears classes might once again stop.

Children returning to school in Burkina Faso’s volatile Sahel region have to practise safety drills to prepare for potential jihadist attacks that have ravaged the West African nation, killing more than 2,000 people this year. For Barro, the simulation of dropping to the ground and hiding under desks brings up memories of when gunmen stormed her village last year and killed seven relatives, forcing her family to flee.

“I’m afraid of being chased away from school,” said Barro as she slung a bag on her back and walked hesitantly to class in Dori town, where she now lives.

In Burkina Faso, worries over the COVID-19 pandemic come second to threats of attacks by extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

More than five million children have been affected by school closures in the country because of coronavirus and violence, according to the United Nations (UN). Even as schools began to reopen in October, many remained shut because of insecurity, especially in hard-hit regions like the Sahel, the epicentre of the crisis.

Some 65 per cent of the region’s more than 1,000 schools are closed, according to the UN, and those that are functioning lack the resources to open safely.

President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, who has been declared the winner of last week’s election and will serve another five years, has promised that his next term would focus on empowering women and youth.

On a visit to Dori last month, one of the last safe havens in the region, educators told The Associated Press that the number of students in class had doubled because of the influx of internally displaced people, putting the teacher-to-student ratio at one to 100 children.

Physical distancing is impossible. Students sit crammed in makeshift tented classrooms, poking their heads through the cracks for fresh air.

While the government earlier this year said it was procuring 12 million masks and soap for students, teachers in Dori said they have not received anything. At Wendou school, 1,400 children use 14 hand-washing stations and no one has masks, said Dofiko Kone, the headmaster.

But, like the students, he is more concerned about the violence than the pandemic.

“It is really difficult for children, because there are children who saw their parents killed in front of them. There are children who ran away and couldn’t even take anything with them, they have nothing to eat. There are children who are here without families,” he said.

Humanitarians warn that the combination of overcrowded and shuttered schools is shrinking available safe spaces for children. Organisations need to find new ways of teaching in emergencies, so that children can “get a foot in the door before it shuts on their future”, said Tom Peyre-Costa, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council.