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Schools in Rebel-Held Northern Ivory Coast to Open in January - 2003-10-08

Students in divided Ivory Coast are going back to school in government-run areas in the south of the country this week, but in the rebel-held north, the start of the school year is being postponed until January.

A young boy rings a bell at a primary school in Abidjan, marking the start of the new school year.

Here, dozens of children cram into small classrooms. It is much the same across the government-held city. The reason for the overcrowding is that many of the students come from the rebel-held north, where schools are closed.

When the civil war broke out 13 months ago, the education ministry started what it called a second school year in January, placing tens of thousands of northern children into private schools at government cost.

This year, free education for northerners has ended because the government says it can't pay for it anymore. It now requires northern students in the private schools to pay about half of the tuition, and charges a nominal fee to students in public schools.

At the private Newton junior high school in the Yopougon district, students from the north look at registration boards to see where the education ministry has decided to place them.

Alain Clovis, 11, looks for his name. His family lives in the rebel-held city of Bouake. But he was on vacation in Abidjan in September last year when the insurgency began.

The government then placed him at the Newton school for free. This year, as he finds out on the board, he has been placed in a public school in the popular Adjame neighborhood.

The young boy says goodbye to his friends, and heads off to his new school.

Out of about 500 students enrolled at Newton, 200 will be from the north. They all will be paying some tuition. Last school year, Newton had about 700 students, 400 of them from the north.

Some children are unable to find their name on the registration board, even though they went to Newton last year. Others have arrived in Abidjan recently to live with family or friends, and they're not on any list either. Some of those will find no school to go to.

One mother, Francoise Kone, says the war has made childrens' education more expensive and complicated for everyone, even southerners.

"Many children won't be able to go to school," she said. "It's very difficult and it's expensive for some. You have to pay transport, tuition; it's going to be difficult.

"I'm from Abidjan, but because of the crisis I had to leave my home and go live at my sister's so I had to place my son in a different school and it's further away so it's been difficult for everyone, even for me," added Ms. Kone.

Her son is in a private school, so he is one of the lucky ones.

Thousands of young northerners who have made it to Abidjan hoping to get into a school are being turned away.

Education Minister Michel Amani N'Guessan tells VOA it's impossible to find a classroom for every child from the north.

It's not that we don't want to take all the children, he said. But, he added that, we have to put a limit of 70 per classroom.

That's about double the classroom size before the war.

Mr. N'Guessan says it's impossible for half the country to take over the entire school system. He says he hopes peace can return, so northern children can have a normal school year.

Some teachers from the north have started teaching in the south, but others remain in rebel-held areas. Some schools reopened there last year, but until now the government has no control over them.

For now, the start of the next school year in the north is being planned for January. The education minister was due to visit Bouake this week to start preparations, but he now says he's heard reports of shooting at rebel headquarters. So he has postponed his trip indefinitely.