A massacre in Africa

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Why is it that schools and school­child­ren have be­come such high-pro­file tar­gets for mur­der­ous Is­lamist mil­i­tants? The 147 stu­dents killed in an attack by the ex­trem­ist group Al-Shabab at a col­lege close to Kenya’s bor­der with So­ma­lia are only the lat­est vic­tims in a suc­ces­sion of out­rages in which ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions have been sin­gled out for attack.

Last De­cem­ber, in Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, seven Tal­iban gun­men strode from class­room to class­room in the Army Pu­bic School, ex­e­cut­ing 145 chil­dren and teach­ers. More re­cently, as more than 80 pupils in South Su­dan were tak­ing their an­nual ex­ams, fighters in­vaded their school and kid­napped them at gun­point. Their fate has been to join the es­ti­mated 12,000 stu­dents con­scripted into chil­dren’s mili­tias in the coun­try’s es­ca­lat­ing civil war.

Ev­ery day, an­other once-vi­brant Syr­ian school is bombed or mil­i­tarised, with 2 mln chil­dren now in refugee camps or ex­iled to makeshift tents or huts. And this week will mark the first an­niver­sary of the ex­trem­ist group Boko Haram’s night­time ab­duc­tion of 220 school­girls from their dor­mi­to­ries in Chi­bok, in Nige­ria’s north­ern Borno state. With con­tin­ued as­saults on lo­cal schools, Boko Haram has es­ca­lated its war against ed­u­ca­tion – mak­ing the last two years Nige­ria’s worst in terms of the vi­o­la­tion of chil­dren’s rights.

In the past five years, there have been

nearly 10,000 at­tacks on schools and ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ments. Why is it that schools, which should be recog­nised as safe havens, have be­come in­stru­ments of war, and school­child­ren have be­come pawns in ex­trem­ists’ strate­gies? And why have such at­tacks been treated so ca­su­ally – the Fe­bru­ary ab­duc­tion in South Su­dan elicited barely any in­ter­na­tional com­ment – when they in fact con­sti­tute crimes against hu­man­ity.

In the de­praved minds of ter­ror­ists, each attack has its own sim­ple logic; the lat­est shoot­ings, for ex­am­ple, are re­venge by Al-Shabab for Kenya’s in­ter­ven­tion in So­ma­lia’s civil war. But all of the re­cent at­tacks share a new tac­tic – to cre­ate shock by ex­ceed­ing what even many of the most hard­ened ter­ror­ists had pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered be­yond the pale. They have be­come ea­ger to stoke pub­lic­ity from the public out­rage at their meth­ods, even trans­mit­ting images of their crimes around the world.

But there is an even more pow­er­ful ex­pla­na­tion for this spate of at­tacks on chil­dren. A now-com­mon ex­trem­ist claim is that ed­u­ca­tion is ac­cul­tur­at­ing African and Asian chil­dren to West­ern ways of think­ing (Boko Haram in the lo­cal Hausa di­alect means “West­ern ed­u­ca­tion is a sin”). More­over, ex­trem­ists like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab cal­cu­late that they can attack schools with im­punity.

Hos­pi­tals tend to be more se­cure, be­cause the Geneva Con­ven­tions give them spe­cial pro­tec­tion as safe havens – a fact of­ten recog­nised by even the most mur­der­ous of ter­ror­ist groups. Un­til re­cently, we have done far too lit­tle to pro­tect schools and pre­vent their mil­i­tari­sa­tion dur­ing times of con­flict. But, just as wars should never be waged by tar­get­ing hos­pi­tals, so com­bat­ants should never vi­o­late schools.

Once slow to re­spond, the world is now act­ing. Thirty coun­tries have re­cently signed up to the Lu­cens or Safe School guide­lines, which in­struct their mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties how to pre­vent schools from be­ing used as in­stru­ments of war. Leila Zer­rougui, Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral for Chil­dren and Armed Con­flict, rec­om­mends des­ig­nat­ing ab­duc­tions of chil­dren from schools a “trig­ger vi­o­la­tion” for the nam­ing of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions in the sec­re­tary-gen­eral’s an­nual re­port to the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

And, thanks to the United Na­tions Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF), the Global Coali­tion to Pro­tect Ed­u­ca­tion from Attack, the Global Busi­ness Coali­tion for Ed­u­ca­tion, and for­mer Nige­rian Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nige­ria has now pi­loted the con­cept of safe schools. This has meant fund­ing school guards, for­ti­fi­ca­tions, and sur­veil­lance equip­ment to re­as­sure par­ents and pupils that ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble is be­ing done to en­sure their school is safe to at­tend. Now, un­der Prime Min­is­ter Muham­mad Nawaz Sharif, Pak­istan is adopt­ing the safe school plan.

In a year when there are more lo­cal con­flicts than ever – and in which chil­dren have be­come among the first (and forgotten) ca­su­al­ties – it is ur­gent that we make stop­ping at­tacks on schools a high pri­or­ity. In dark times, chil­dren and par­ents con­tinue to view their schools as sanc­tu­ar­ies, as places of nor­mal­ity and safety. When law and or­der break down, peo­ple need not only ma­te­rial help – food, shel­ter, and health care – but also hope. There is no more pow­er­ful way to up­hold the vi­sion of a fu­ture free from con­flict than by keep­ing schools run­ning.

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