The 24th of July was a very sad day for Achta. The seventeen-year-old was sitting in her house, fretting over her dream of getting an education. She was supposed to take an entrance test for secondary school that day, but the exam was taking place on the other side of town, controlled by one of the armed groups active in CAR, the anti-Balaka. As a Muslim, she was afraid of going, for fear of being attacked.
Then Achta heard a voice outside the house calling for her. Some people were looking for her. “I ran out of the house, and there I saw the principal of my school and a lady wearing a UNICEF t-shirt”, she recalls. “She told me I had to go to UN OCHA base the next morning at 7,” says Achta, “and that a car would pick me up, drive me to the school where the exams were taking place, and then drive me back home to safety when I was finished”.
“I cried with relief, and I prayed to God and asked him to bless this angel that had come to rescue me”, says Achta.
A few days later she got her results: she passed, and she will be going to secondary school next month.
The situation in CAR has developed from a silent emergency into a visible and complex humanitarian and protection crisis, as a result of a rebel offensive that began in December 2012 and a seizure of power in March 2013. Fighting in the capital reached a peak in December 2013 as armed and community-based self-defence groups calling themselves Anti-Balaka rose up in revenge against ex-Seleka, the rebel group who had orchestrated the coup nine months earlier. The violence spread out across the country, with large-scale human rights abuses committed on both sides, followed by a serious deterioration in the humanitarian situation.
With hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by violence, and regular education services disrupted, UNICEF was able to set up temporary learning spaces for children. Now that the security situation is improving in many areas of the country, UNICEF, the Ministry of Education and partners are working towards ambitious programs that aim to rebuild the school system with funding from the European Union and the Global Partnership for Education.
In Batangafo, where Achta lives, the peak in violence was reached in June 2014, with clashes between ex-Seleka and Anti-Balaka armed groups. The town has now been divided for over a year, with most of the non-Muslim population (over 28.000 people) living either in an internally displaced persons camp, or in a small part of town, away from the Muslim population.
In August 2014, the Anti-Balaka armed groups attacked Achta’s neigborhood. Her father was killed. Her mother fled, her fate unknown to the girl until she got word that she had safely reached Cameroon. Achta then ended up living with her sister and grandparents. She would spend her days sitting in front of the house, selling peanuts and salt, in order to provide for the family.
Achta’s regular school had closed, because it was located in the ex-Seleka controlled part of town. Over the last few months Achta has been able to attend classes in one of the Temporary Learning Spaces set up by UNICEF and partners. However, the secondary school entrance exams were organised in one location only- and it was in the non-Muslim part of Batangafo. There was no way she could go there on her own.
Achta was doing well in school and her teacher knew it. I happened to be in Batangafo on that day, and he asked me if UNICEF could help. I will never forget her tears of joy when she finally found out she had passed. After months of suffering –and probably many more difficult times to come, being able to attend secondary school is giving Achta hope for the future.
Cecile Pango is an education officer working with UNICEF CAR focusing on Temporary Safe Learning Spaces.