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30 Jul 2017

Two years after, pupils struggle for education in former Boko Haram territories

ARUKAINO UMUKORO writes about the poor state of education in towns in Adamawa State overrun by Boko Haram before their liberation by the Nigerian Army

Bilikisu Umar’s slim 17-year-old frame is still trying to come to terms with the many atrocities and savagery she saw in the last three years. Blurred and sometimes graphical images are still etched firmly on the broken frames of her heart; people being burnt to death, houses and farmlands torched; children, women and men running helter-skelter into the mountains or anywhere their legs could carry them as some were fell by Boko Haram bullets.

She recalled some of the incidents like one in a trance, willing her innocent mind to forget, painting vivid pictures with her words, in broken frames, but in unblinking technicolour, as her voice was trailed with sadness.

One of the most nightmarish ones felt like it happened recently, Umar whispered. This was because for the last five months, she has been coming to the same vicinity four of five times every week, and seeing the signs.

“They came from one of these mountains,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH, pointing towards the mountain opposite one of the blocks housing her classroom in Government Day Secondary School, Gulak, the headquarters of Madagali Local Government Area in Adamawa State. The mountains overlooking GDSS and Gulak is said to be close to the Cameroon border.

Many residents who returned after the Nigerian Army recaptured the town from the insurgents told our correspondent they survived in the mountains for months before they escaped to Yola, the state capital, and to surrounding villages in Cameroon.

That day in September, 2014, Boko Haram insurgents attacked Gulak and other areas in Madagali. GDSS was one of the schools that were destroyed in about three hours of rampage in the town.

Umar was 14 when they attacked that day. “When they first came, they attacked our communities and started shooting everywhere. We ran for dear lives and many of us escaped to the mountain area. Later, they came back to destroy our school buildings. We saw them from the mountains where we ran to, they were many, more than 20. They came on motorbikes, carrying heavy weapons, like rifles, and so on and destroyed the buildings inside the school. I still remember the incident like it was yesterday. I know also that Boko Haram killed many people in the community, including my friend,” she said.

Umar said this was one of the reasons she stopped sitting by the window since the schools in former Boko Haram strongholds like Madagali, Michika and Mubi, in the state were reopened some months ago.

“I am afraid because my classroom is opposite the mountain. And the last time they came from that side. I hear that some Boko Haram members are still hiding in some parts of the town, to kill themselves and others. I am always scared that they may come back one day, and I pray they never come back to attack our school or town again,” she told our correspondent.

Since that attack in September 2014, Madagali and its environs witnessed several other attacks and suicide bomb blasts by the insurgents until it was liberated by the Nigerian Army.

GDSS was one of the schools destroyed by Boko Haram insurgents in many towns in Adamawa State. Gulak, Madagali, Michika and Mubi were the most affected areas in the state.

Similarly, Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states are the most affected states by the insurgency in the North-East, where a state of emergency was imposed in 2013 by the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan.

In 2015, most of these towns in the three states, including Madagali, Mubi, Michika, were liberated by the Nigerian Military from Boko Haram.

Broken schools, traumatised pupils

Many schools in such places that were once under the grip of the insurgents only resumed fully in January after two years of inactivity due to the insurgency.

Like Umar, her schoolmates are struggling with fear every day as they go to school. Some trek long distances on foot on roads overlooking beautiful mountains with dreadful memories.

One of them is 16-year-old Peace Joshua, who would have been in SS3 if the over two-year crisis had not forced closure of the school.

She told our correspondent that she and her school mates are still finding it hard to cope with academic work after two years of non-learning.

Coupled with that is the fear of another Boko Haram attack in Madagali. Joshua lost her aunt and some of her neighbours when the insurgents attacked Madagali.

She said, “It has not been easy since we returned to school. We are also afraid of Boko Haram because there are somewhere around that Madagali. We hear about suicide bombings in other communities around us like Gwoza, so we are sometimes afraid they could return to attack us. The soldiers are trying but we are still afraid.”

There are several military check points around Gulak and Madagali, but many, like Joshua, still have nightmares stemming from the last attacks.

Eighteen-year-old Josiah Bulus, now in SS2, said he also escaped to the mountains after seeing his two brothers killed. “Two of my classmates also died when they were trying to run form Boko Haram,” he said.

Till today, Umar, Joshua, Josiah, and others, still look out to the mountain, not with hope, but with trepidation.

For JSS 3 student, 17-year-old Emmanuel Michael, the death of his school mate, Istifanus James, motivates him not to give up on getting education.

Istifanus was 12 years old and in JSS1 when he was killed by Boko Haram. Michael said he and his family ran for 13 hours on foot until they got to the nearest village and out of sight of the insurgents. “I want to become an engineer in the future so that I can help my community and people to fix their cars,” he said with eyes shining with hope.

Many students of GDSS told our correspondent that the fear of Boko Haram is affecting their studies, but noted that their teachers have assured them that the military was fully in control of the town now.

“What if they come from the mountains again?” 17-year-old Esther Pragna asked innocently. When quizzed further, she said the question haunted her almost every time she tried to study her books during break time. Nevertheless, she said she was determined to complete her education.

“I lost my brothers and sisters to Boko Haram. Many of my classmates were killed too. I know 17 students who died. I am happy I can continue my education and I hope to become a nurse in the future,” she said.

GDSS Gulak currently has about 1,200 students which is half the population before the attack in 2014, the principal, Mr. Colman Bridling, told SUNDAY PUNCH.

Several of the students were killed, while the others are afraid to return to school or have not returned from Internally Displaced Persons camps in Yola and other places, the headmaster of GDSS, Bridling, said.

“Only 1,200 students have resumed, because many of them are still afraid to return. And now, because of the frequent encroachment by the insurgents, many students that resumed have run away again. The number of those in school keep dropping and rising intermittently due to the security situation,” he said.

Worrisome chain of events

Over one million school children were forced out of school during the height of the insurgency in the North-East, noted the UNICEF, which added that “The number of children missing out on their education due to the conflict adds to the estimated 11 million children of primary school age who were already out of school in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger before the onset of the crisis.”

During the height of the insurgency, the UNICEF further stated that more than 2,000 schools were closed in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, while hundreds of others were attacked, burnt down or damaged by the insurgents while they held sway in territories like Madagali, in Adamawa State, as well as many other towns in Borno and Yobe states, the three most affected states by the insurgency in the North-East.

“It’s a staggering number. The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region, and violence has kept many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk of dropping out of school altogether,” UNICEF’s West and Central Africa Regional Director, Manuel Fontaine, was quoted as saying in 2015.

Since 2009, in their quest to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram waged a war against Western education in the North-East, deliberately targeting schools for destruction in their reign of terror.

Our correspondent went round schools in the area to see the extent of the destruction Boko Haram left in its wake. At every school visited, several classrooms and buildings still bore the signs of insurgent attacks.

The chemistry teacher in the GDSS, Gulak, Mr. Pool Hassan, showed our correspondent one of the buildings that was destroyed, with charred remains of a computer printer in the school’s computer room.

“We had 200 computers, chairs, printers, and two generators; everything was destroyed by Boko Haram. The school laboratory and library was also burnt down. We can’t carry out practicals without materials and no school fees for the teachers to buy these materials,” ” he said.

There were 33 teachers in the school. But not all of them returned.

Bridling also lamented that many students could not afford the school fees of N850 per term because their parents are poor farmers and most of their farmlands had been destroyed.

“The school resumed in January, but only 12 students in total can pay in SS1 and SS2. We don’t have any textbooks at all because the school library was burnt down. Even getting chalk is a problem. There is nothing. We need mostly teaching materials, pupils are sitting on the floor in most classrooms because almost all the classes have been burnt down,” he said.

Like GDSS, it was a similar tale of deaths and destruction in Government Secondary School, Shuwa, Madagali, and Government Secondary School, Mubi. Pupils were seen sitting on floors in classrooms to take lessons. In most of the schools visited, soldiers were seen guarding the entrance after the close of the day.

Formerly a teachers’ college, GSS, Shuwa was converted to a boarding and day secondary school in 2006.

Several classrooms, hostels and the school library were in ruins; tell-tale signs of the previous attacks.

One of the teachers in GSS, Shuwa, Mr. Paul Zirra, told our correspondent that he was in the teachers’ quarters when Boko Haram first attacked the school.

He said, “The insurgents killed two security men. We then ran away with many of our students. I had to take care of about 50 junior pupils in the bush where we hid, we later ran into a neighbouring village where we slept. The next morning, the school was closed down and soldiers came later, but Boko Haram attacked the mobile barracks. Two days later, they attacked Gulak and we advised the pupils to run for their dear lives. I ran with my family to Michika, while some people ran to the mountain. The next week, they (Boko Haram) came back again to the town and attacked our school. We saw them from the mountain going around with motorcycles, when they saw we were at the mountain, they wanted to pursue us. So we ran to anther village for 13 hours. We stayed there for over two months before we found our way to Yola. Four of our students were killed.”

Zirra said the traumatic experiences they witnessed and the number of years they were forced out of school had affected the learning of the pupils.

“They don’t have textbooks, because they have all been burnt down. Pupils are afraid of coming to school. The traumatic events they witnessed affected them. This school is a catchment area for the state but because of the fear, it is only people around it that bring their children there, but even they are also afraid. They are afraid of the sound of gunshots and bombs, sounds like that scare them always,” he stated.

Living with terror of the past

Some weeks ago, Zirra said pupils jumped out of their classrooms in fear when they heard sound akin to gunshots and bombs.

“Apparently, some persons were beating drums in Michika. But the pupils started running, thinking it was the sound of gunshots. Now it is funny, but it wasn’t then,” he said, laughing.

There are about 750 pupils in the school, the principal, GSS Shuwa, Junior section, Andrew Wurani, told our correspondent.

He said, “Some pupils and staff are yet to resume because of the fear of Boko Haram. We can’t give you the exact number of pupils that resumed now because some are still in Cameroon and are afraid to return, while some have died and nobody saw their dead bodies. We cannot conclude about their whereabouts. Many pupils died, about 17, and for those that we have not seen since, even though nobody saw their dead bodies, we have concluded they are dead, because Boko Haram killed many people in Madagali and other places.”

An SS1 pupil of GSS Shuwa, eighteen-year-old Bitrus, said he has lost time running away from Boko Haram with his parents, first to the mountain, and then they were ferried to an IDP camp in Yola. He and his family only returned to the town last December.

Jacraim, who wants to be an engineer, said “We just took our JSS3 exams when Boko Haram attacked us in Gulak and Madagali. They pursued us from Gulak to Michika. We ran from there to the mountain close to Cameroon. We were there for two or three months before we went to Yola. I am happy to be back in school.

“I would have been in SS2 if not for Boko Haram. I feel so bad coming back after two years. Some of us are not even intelligent enough because we don’t have the encouragement to finish what we were supposed to do. Boko Haram killed many people, including some of my friends who are pupils of the school. The Federal Government should help us rebuild our school and buy us textbooks.”

Wurani said the population of male pupils in the school had reduced because “Boko Haram captured some of them and turned them to fighters.’’

“We need many interventions in the school, this school, in particular, is a boarding school, but the pupils can’t even feed and the security situation is bad. Their parents are poor; they don’t have food in their houses. We just have to manage the situation we find ourselves. In fact, we don’t know where we are going with these pupils,” he said.

Amidst the physical gloom than hung over many schools building visited by our correspondent in Madagali, there were a few bright spots. Some were visible in Jalingo-Gulak Primary and Secondary School, Madagali, and Gulak Central Primary School, where some of the classrooms that were destroyed by the insurgents had been rebuilt by the Presidential Initiative for the North-East.

But compared to the number of school buildings that were destroyed in the town, this was a drop in the ocean, noted the supervisory councillor for education, youth, sports and culture, Madagali Local Government Area, Francis Zaman.

“We plead with the Federal and state governments and NGOs to come to our aid to assist because of the extent of the damages, the poor infrastructure, and lack of learning materials in almost all of our schools,” he said.

Zaman praised the courage and resilience of the people in the face of adversity and repeated attacks from insurgents in the past.

“There are many challenges. We thank our people for the courage they have; if not they would have all gone and not come back home. Since September 5, 2014, Boko Haram pursued our people, terrorised them and destroyed our homes and farms. I have to thank the teachers because they didn’t wait for any further directive to start teaching. But the children are even more courageous. Some are disillusioned and traumatised, their parents are poor, but they still want to go to school to get educated. We have to encourage them,” he said.

Aside from school infrastructure, hospital, religious centres and markets were destroyed by the insurgents.

On the road to Madagali, one of the bridges reportedly bombed by the insurgents, the Kudzum bridge – which was a link to several towns – is yet to be repaired. Cars had to slow down on approaching the bridge because it had caved in at the middle. It was the same at the Dilchim Bridge, which was also damaged at the peak of the insurgency.

Peeping into the future with hope

A few schools, like GDSS in Gulak, were opened in January. Umar said she is happy about it, but she still harbours fears for her life and that of her schoolmates.

Since the insurgency started, about two million people have been displaced in the North-East, mainly from Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. More than half of which are those under 18.

Residents say Gulak is about 16 kilometres from Sambisa Forest, which was once the stronghold of the insurgents, and a few miles from Chibok, Borno State, where over 200 schoolgirls from Government Secondary School, Chibok, were abducted from their hostels on April 14, 2015.

The news of the release of 82 of the Chibok girls not long ago was celebrated by teachers in Madagali, Michika and other environs where Boko Haram had overrun.

“This is because they know what it feels like to be under a siege and understand the pains of parents and loved ones who lost their children in quest for education,” said the headmaster of Jalingo-Gulak Secondary School, Simon Yaresada.

Similarly, in October, 2016, 21 of the girls were also released following negotiations between the Federal Government and the insurgents.

While Chibok parents hope for the release of the rest 113 girls still in Boko Haram captivity, pupils in Madagali say they are still scared of probable attack from the insurgents, despite the presence of soldiers.
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