Broken sanctuary: attacks on schools are assaults of children’s rights

Zau Seng, 11, is a student at Nam Ya Middle School, in Moe Nyin District, Kachin State, Myanmar. Kachin has been affected by conflict since 2011, following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. The recent violence has resulted in thousands of deaths and the displacement of around 100,000 civilians, half of them children. Despite ongoing peace talks, a final deal has proved elusive and the fighting continues.

Nam Ya School is in a government controlled area, but close to territory where two rival armed groups are fighting. It was during fighting between these two armed groups, local residents say, that the school came under fire.

Seng is in the Grade 5 at school. “I like studying Myanmar and maths,” he says. “I also like working in the school garden and playing catch with my friends during break time. When I grow up, I want to be a teacher. My teacher inspires me.”

One day in August, a rocket propelled grenade landed in the school yard. Seng remembers the moment clearly. “I was having lunch with my friends when there was an explosion,” he says. “I was hit in my cheek by a piece of metal. I knew I’d been hit because I could feel the pain and my friends told me I was bleeding. I was shocked and afraid.”

Seng was taken to a nearby clinic, where his wound was cleaned and treated. Luckily, his injury was relatively minor, although still traumatic for an 11 year old. But one of his teachers was not so lucky.

Mya stands outside Nam Ya Middle School, where she and Seng were injured in an attack
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016Mya stands outside Nam Ya Middle School, where she and Seng were injured in an attack

Mya Yupar Nge, 25, teaches Myanmar, English and Geography at Seng’s school. “I particularly enjoy teaching Myanmar songs and poems,” she says. “It’s the children’s happiest time. They enjoy singing along.”

On the day of the shelling, Mya became aware of fighting around midday, when she heard the sounds of gunfire from the hills overlooking the school. “We immediately warned the children to come inside and hide,” she says.

School was dismissed, and those students who lived close by went home. The teachers stayed in the compound to look after the children who remained. “Some of the children came back because they could hear shooting,” Mya says. “Parents came to school, shouting the names of their children.”

Just as the teachers thought they’d got everyone safely inside, Mya saw a young girl outside, running between classrooms. “I went outside, grabbed her, and pulled her into my classroom,” she says. “That’s when the grenade landed. The door was not yet closed, and I got hit by shrapnel in the shoulder.”

Mya was shocked and didn’t feel any pain at first. “My arm went numb,” she says. “I tried to move my hand and saw blood gushing out of my shoulder. The children were very distressed and crying. I was very scared. I thought I was going to lose my arm.”

In fact Mya was lucky to survive. She lost a lot of blood, but two of the parents carried her to the local clinic, which is next to the school. They controlled the bleeding and transferred her by ambulance to a hospital in Myitkyina, where she was operated on. The doctors were able to save her arm, but she still has shrapnel lodged in her shoulder and has difficulty using her right hand.

Despite this, Mya is keen to return to school. “I’ll go back at the start of next term,” she says. “I’m anxious to get back. I don’t like leaving my students for this long.”

Rules of engagement

Seng points to the location of his village, where the attack happened, on a map of Kachin State
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar MonSeng points to the location of his village, where the attack happened, on a map of Kachin State

Attacks against schools and hospitals are violations of both international law and children’s rights. To keep children safe, it is vital that civilian facilities, in particular schools and hospitals, are protected from the impact of war. In Myanmar, UNICEF monitors and reports on attacks against schools and hospitals.

“Children have the right to an education and need to feel safe in school,” Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF Child Protection chief says. “We call on all armed forces and groups in Myanmar to take measures to ensure that schools and hospitals are protected from conflict. They should have training for officers and soldiers, as well as accountability for anyone who breaks the rules.”

In addition to these kind of attacks, armed groups in Kachin sometimes occupy schools and hospitals, to use them as barracks for soldiers. This increases the risk of grave violations against children, including sexual abuse, and interferes with their education and health care.

“Schools and hospitals are not places for soldiers,” Aaron continues. “Their presence puts children and teachers at risk. When soldiers occupy these buildings, they become targets for attack, and children are more likely to be caught in the crossfire.”

Casualties of war

Seng with his grandmother and Mya outside UNICEF’s office in Myitkyina
© UNICEF Myanmar/2016/Khine Zar MonSeng with his grandmother and Mya outside UNICEF’s office in Myitkyina

As well as attacks on schools, children in Kachin State are killed or maimed by landmines and unexploded ordinance. After decades of armed conflict, Myanmar has some of the highest landmine accident rates in the world. Around half of the victims are children, who suffer death or long term disability.

“Mine risk education and awareness is low in Myanmar,” Aaron says. “There are many myths about landmines. More than 40 per cent of people believe prodding with a wooden or metal stick is a safe way to check for mines. Burning fields is also seen as a safe method to rid an area of landmines. In fact, both of these are actually very dangerous.”

UNICEF is advocating for mine risk education in all schools, communities and health centres. According to a recent knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) survey, 3 out 4 children had not received any information on mines. There is now a government approved mine risk education tool kit, which is being rolled out nationally. But much more needs to be done. Child survivors of landmines and their families need long-term support, including health care, psychosocial support, rehabilitation, education and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, armed forces and groups on both sides are resorting to landmines. “The need is urgent and cannot wait for a final peace agreement,” Aaron says. “Myanmar should join the 162 countries that have already signed the international mine ban treaty.”

For Seng and Mya, their school is no longer a safe haven from violence and conflict, but they still have hopes for a better future. “I thought this would never happen, because we were in a school with houses around, but I was wrong,” Mya says. “I hope the conflict ends soon so that people can stop being scared and children can get a good education.”

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