Lodi News-Sentinel

Haiti gangs target schools for kidnapping, violence

- Jacqueline Charles

In Haiti, schools have traditiona­lly been considered respected safe zones, regardless of the country’s crisis of the moment. Not anymore.

Schools are increasing­ly targets of armed violence, the United Nation’s leading child welfare agency said Thursday, reporting that shootings, ransacking, looting and kidnapping­s in Haiti’s schools have increased ninefold in one year.

“As children reel from the effects of armed violence, insecurity in Haiti shows no sign of abating,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF Representa­tive in Haiti. “Violence continues to take a heavy toll on children’s lives in and around Port-au-Prince, and schools are no longer spared. A child who is scared to go to school is a child more at risk of being recruited by armed groups. We must act urgently to protect children’s lives and futures.”

Maes called on armed groups to refrain from targeting schools and for the government to hold individual­s accountabl­e.

In January, children lost an average of 1 1/2 school days per week because of the violence, which has led to closures. In the first six days of February, 30 schools were shuttered as a result of escalating violence in urban areas, while about 25 percent of schools has remained closed since October, UNICEF said.

Without urgent action to protect schools from violence, UNICEF predicts that students will lose an estimated 36 days of school by the end of June.

Last week, students in Petionvill­e were thrown into a panic when armed gang members from the Timakak gang operating in the hills above the capital attempted to get inside a school. Police quickly responded before anyone was harmed.

UNICEF said that since the academic year started in October, 72 schools have been targeted, compared with eight during the same four-month period the year before. This includes at least 13 schools targeted by armed groups, one school that was set on fire, one student who was killed, and a school in which two staff members were kidnapped, according to reports by UNICEF partners.

“In certain urban areas of the country, armed groups consider looting schools as a lucrative alternativ­e to other forms of extortion and crime,” said Maes. “This must stop. The targeting of schools by armed groups is having an enormous impact on children’s safety, well-being and ability to learn.”

An estimated 1 million children in Haiti currently remain out of school due to the social unrest, insecurity and high education costs, while violence against schools is fast becoming a reason for parents to keep their children at home, UNICEF said.

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