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Civil War Has Traumatized Ivory Coast Children

The civil war in Ivory Coast has been especially hard on the West African nation's children. Tens of thousands of young people are now without basic health services and have had little schooling since the conflict began four months ago.

Children pick up their chairs and prepare to go home after another day at a makeshift classroom in Abidjan's impoverished Abobo district. The classroom, a shed in the dusty courtyard of a church, was set up by Catholic missionaries and welcomes children whose families have escaped fighting in the rebel-held areas of the north of Ivory Coast.

The children always arrive in a state of trauma, explained Father Jairo Valbuena, a missionary from Colombia, who helps run the school. He says he says one sees it in their faces: a certain sadness because of the violence they have been subjected to. Many, he says, have walked long distances. Father Valbuena says that as children, they never lose their smiles, but he says one can tell they are stressed because of fatigue, a lack of consistent feeding, and he says many are in need of some sort of medical care.

Ever since the fighting began, children have suffered, especially those in areas controlled by the rebels, said Kent Page, of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF in Abidjan. "Children in the rebel-held territories have not been in school since the 19th of September, since the rebellion began. Many of the teachers have left the areas. Teachers are fleeing these areas for security reasons. Another problem is that government salaries, including teachers', including health workers', the salaries aren't reaching up to those areas," he said.

Public schools in Abidjan have not been able to accommodate the thousands of children who continue to come in every month from the conflict zones. Affoue Kouadio, 36, said she came to Abidjan from the rebel stronghold of Bouake, with her three children plus a nephew and a niece. She said she has not been able to get her older children enrolled in school.

Mrs. Kouadio said she tried to register the children, a third grader and a sixth grader in school, but there is no room. She said school officials told her they would accept the children at the end of January, so she is waiting. She said the children are staying home. Fighting back tears, Mrs. Kouadio says she worries the children are losing a full school year.

To try to alleviate the problem, the Ivory Coast government has begun a new school year this month to accommodate children whose schooling has been interrupted by the war. Officials originally estimated about 60,000 students would be accommodated at makeshift schools, but the number of those attempting to register has far exceeded that figure.

Ivory Coast's education minister, Michel Amani N'Guessan, told VOA that further challenges lie ahead, even if a peace deal is implemented soon. Mr. N'Guessan said that even if classrooms were not destroyed in the war, officials must look at whether those who were displaced will want to return to their places of origin. That, the minister said, will not be easy. He says there are people, teachers and students, who will not want to go back to where they were before.

A lack of basic health care in the rebel zones is a source of major concern for officials of international humanitarian agencies, who fear an outbreak of measles and other diseases. UNICEF says most children in the rebel areas have gone unvaccinated for the past four months, despite rebel pledges to grant access to humanitarian workers. The biggest reason for this is that many doctors and other health workers have fled the rebel zones or, in some cases, been forcibly recruited by insurgents.

Assi Kouao is a nurse who used to administer vaccines to children. He says he fled his home in the western Man region last month after rebels took over the town and showed up at his clinic.

He said he left because the rebels were looking for him. Mr. Kouao said the insurgents wanted him to join them so that he could treat their wounded. He did not go with them, he says, because he feared that if loyalists fired on the rebels, he might be killed because he was with them. Mr. Kouao said he also feared the loyalists would have thought he was a rebel.

With some progress being reported at the peace talks on Ivory Coast now under way outside Paris, there is rising hope here that things may begin to normalize in the not too distant future.

How long it would take for the government to restore services is another question. And for thousands of Ivory Coast's children, the time lost from school will be difficult to make up.