The sound of students reciting the alphabet is replaced by silence. The stillness is only broken by wind rattling the dry grass surrounding the pole stumps in straight lines on the barren plain. The poles used to hold Ogweni primary school, then the conflict came.
One hour by plane from the capital Juba and 15 minutes by boat on the river Nile, dotted with clusters of green water lilies and hippos lurking below the surface, I arrive at Wau Skilluk, where Ogweni primary school was built in 2016/2017 with support from UNICEF.
“The school was one of a kind, we had never seen this design before,” a former teacher told me. “The whole community felt this was a real school,” said another. “It had iron sheets on the roof, meaning it would not get flooded during the rain,” said one of the former students.
The dried mud floor with zig-zagging cracks used to be covered with the footprints of 500 students. Now, only marks from goat hooves can be seen.
“We had to leave everything because of guns,” Sunday Okitch says. She is 15 years old, dreaming of becoming a doctor and is of one the former students at Ogweni. The school was completed in early 2017 and had only been open a few weeks when the soldiers came. “I remember the shooting started at 4pm. Heavy shelling. We had to flee. The school was in perfect condition when I left,” James Opach Mayik recalls. He used to be a teacher at the school.
The fighting in Wau Skilluk was so intense that the entire plain where the school stood was scorched by flames, yet the school was left standing. Soldiers occupying the area started dismantling the school, including chopping off its legs, to build accommodation and sell the materials to make money.
After another hour by boat up the river to the north and then an hour driving along a dirt road snaking through the swamp, I reach Abrouc. This is where most of the people in Wau Skilluk found shelter when their homes were destroyed by the conflict and where I found the people who knew Ogweni primary school before it was destroyed.
Looking for former students and teachers took me all over Abrouc and turned into a fun quest. People were so helpful. “You should talk to Simon, you find him in the market playing mancala (an African stone game).” Simon gave me another name I could work on and it finally led me to James. He used to teach grades 4, 5 and 6 in Christian Religious Education and mathematics at Ogweni and was also the administrator of the school.
“The new school made me enjoy teaching more,” he says as his mouth curves into a smile, pushing his cheeks up before reaching the eyes and making them twinkle. His smile suddenly fades as he continues; “I was back in Wau Shiluk last week and I saw the school, or what was left of it. It pains me to see that nothing is left. When there is no school the country will go bad and this is the reason for the conflict.”
In South Sudan, 30 per cent of the schools are damaged, destroyed, occupied or closed as a result of the conflict.
With the support from another helper I was able to locate some of the former Ogweni students. They are now in Abrouc community school and eager to return home if it is safe, but they are upset that the brand-new school they left behind is gone.
“If the school is destroyed you miss your studies and you cannot become what you want to become,” says 15- year-old Sebit Juma.
“It is not good to destroy schools, then children have nowhere to learn,” Josephine Andrew, 17, adds.
“If we find out who destroyed our school we need to tell them not to do it again,” Emmanuel William, 15, finishes.
Part of what is left of Ogweni primary school has now been made into a sculpture resembling a South Sudanese child. The art installation is placed at the airport in Mallorca, greeting every person arriving to attend the Safe Schools Conference in May, begging world leaders to protect schools and allow children to have an education.
In 2018, UNICEF South Sudan established and rehabilitated 460 classrooms throughout the country. James, the teacher, is determined to rebuild the school in Wau Shilluk.
“We actually never had an opening ceremony at Ogweni because the school was just finished, and we had just started using it when the soldiers came,” he says. “If the peace holds and people start moving back, we need to rebuild it. We don’t have a lot, but we can find some materials, local trees for poles, and start rebuilding. Hopefully we can have a grand ceremony in a rebuilt school,” he finishes with the twinkle back in his eyes.
Helene Sandbu Ryeng is a communication specialist working for UNICEF in South Sudan.
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