Like many of the Somali youth I interviewed in Kenya, “Xarid M.” had braved the streets of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, for as long as he could to go to school. But that all changed the day the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab brought the war to his classroom.
“Al-Shabaab came into the compound of the school and told us to stay in class,” he said. The fighters set up a rocket launcher in the playground and started firing rockets in the direction of opposition territory. For more than two hours, the students and teachers huddled inside, terrified by the sounds of return fire. Finally, the al-Shabaab fighters released them, but as they fled, a rocket exploded in the compound, killing eight students.
This is but one example of al-Shabaab’s frequent use of schools in areas they have controlled. Students said that the group raised its flag over their schools and stored hand grenades and guns inside while classes were going on. Somali youth told me that al-Shabaab abducted boys from their schoolyards to fight for them and took girls from class for forced marriage.
The armed group regularly visited classrooms to make sure the schools weren’t teaching English or other subjects they found objectionable. On occasion they sent their own fighters to instruct in their version of Islam and conduct weapons training or took over schools entirely. A boy who dropped out amid generalized fighting said that when he went back to his school, “It was an al-Shabaab zone. I saw their vehicles -- "technicals" -- there. There was no more learning.”
It wasn’t just the rebels who were misusing the schools. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), now replaced under UN auspices by the Somali National Government (SNG), also used schools as camps and detention centers.
The experiences of Mogadishu students are, unfortunately, not unique. The use of schools and universities by government forces and rebel groups during conflict is widespread. According to a study released today by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack -- an alliance of several UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations -- national armies and armed groups have used schools and other education institutions in the majority of armed conflicts around the world, in at least 24 countries in the last seven years.
In Syria, for example, government forces have used schools as barracks, with tanks at the school gates and snipers posted on the rooftops. Anti-government forces have also used schools as bases. In Sanaa, Yemen, forces on both sides have used schools as barracks, bases, surveillance posts, and firing positions. In southern Thailand, paramilitary Rangers and Royal Thai Army troops occupied at least 79 schools in 2010. (They subsequently vacated many.) The practice extends to Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Libya, Mali, and other conflict areas.
The cost is high. The presence of armed forces at schools and universities can make them legitimate military targets, posing a grave risk to any students and teachers still present. Like Xarid’s classmates, some have been injured and killed. Far more children have their education disrupted -- classes are displaced, school infrastructure is damaged and destroyed, and students drop out. Those who try to remain may find themselves crowded into the remaining classrooms and distracted by armed men who may brandish weapons, interrogate suspects on school grounds, and use alcohol and drugs. Not surprisingly, girls are disproportionately affected.
“I was always worried when they were at school,” said a mother whose daughter was ultimately abducted by al-Shabaab from her school. “Every day you get your child back at the end you are thankful. Every day there were incidents reported from the school.”
Military use of schools is not just damaging to students’ safety and education: the costs continue far after the conflict. For example, in newly independent South Sudan, security forces used at least 21 schools for military purposes during 2011, affecting approximately 10,900 children. The cost of repairing resultant damage was estimated at around US$67,000 per school.
It does not have to be this way. Communities, international organizations, legislatures, courts, and armed forces have all found ways to stop armed groups and forces from using schools and other education institutions. In the Philippines, for example, although there are some ongoing incidents of military use of schools, both national legislation and military policy explicitly ban the practice. This year the United Nations issued a new manual for all infantry battalions serving as peacekeepers prohibitingthem from using schools in their operations. Still, few states explicitly restrict their own military’s use of schools, the Coalition’s study finds. This is an area where international guidance would be useful.
Adopting a clear and simple ban on the use of schools and universities for military purposes would provide an unambiguous and easily-communicated rule to soldiers on the battlefield. Commanders and planners would know they need to prepare in advance to avoid using and endangering schools and other education institutions. International and local organizations -- and communities themselves -- would benefit from a standard they could use to monitor the conduct of national armies and armed groups and to object to their presence. An international standard could also serve as a tool for negotiating with contravening groups, and could inform militaries on how to mitigate the damage when armed groups do use schools.
Schools should be safe places for children -- with militaries and armed groups kept out.
Zama Coursen-Neff is Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights director and chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (www.protectingeducation.org). You can follow her on Twitter @ZamaHRW.