In Conflict Zones, Children Dying For An Education


A child in countries wracked with conflict such as Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria may be forced to play a variety of roles: target of terror, collateral damage, doctor — but only all too rarely student.

A new Amnesty International report released Thursday examines the devastating attacks on Nigerian schoolchildren and their teachers by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. The radical jihadist group — whose name roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden” — have stepped up their attacks on schools this year, including a massacre in July at a Nigerian boarding school that left 42 children and one teacher dead.

While Amnesty notes that Nigeria’s poor communications network makes it difficult to get hard data on the number of students killed, they estimate that in the past year alone over 70 teachers and many more of their students have been slaughtered, while 50 schools have been burned and 60 more have been closed through fear and intimidation. Nearly 15,000 children are believed to have been forced out of their schools. “Attacks against schoolchildren, teachers and school buildings demonstrate an absolute disregard for the right to life and the right to education,” said Amnesty’s deputy Africa director Lucy Freeman.

Children attempting to gain an education aren’t only vulnerable to terrorists intent on returning to their distorted view of a golden age. In Pakistan, children have reportedly fallen victim to a very modern form of warfare: drone strikes. While impossible to tell from public reports just how many children have become collateral damage in the effort to eliminate Al Qaeda, some estimates believe that hundreds of children have been killed in the ongoing drone campaign. A joint study by the Stanford and NYU law schools insisted that the constant presence of drones terrified children, leading to deep psychological harm.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon gave a similar warning in a report issued in June:

The mixed use of armed and surveillance drones has resulted in permanent fear in some communities, affecting the psychosocial well-being of children and hindering the ability of such communities to protect their children. Reports further indicate that the use of drones has a wider impact on children, especially their access to education. For example, in some situations, both boys and girls have ceased attending school owing to the fear of drone strikes.

Children have also been among the greatest victims of civil war in Syria, where one million children have fled the fighting, with thousands more dying at the hands of artillery, airstrikes, and improvised explosive devices. The war that is tearing apart the fabric of Syria does not spare schools. As the Washington Post reported, even though 4,000 schools have been destroyed or turned into shelters for displaced Syrians, children are being sent back to learn in regime-controlled regions. In rebel areas, half of all schools are closed, and the ones that remain open risk being the targets of the Assad regime’s artillery and air strikes.

In those rebel areas, students are being diverted from learning to helping out on the frontlines. While many children were brutally killed when chemical weapons were deployed in August, it was those treating the victims of the sarin gas attack that illustrate the terrifying world children have been thrust into: the medical assistants were children themselves. According to a Reuters report, children as young as 14 have been enlisted to treat wounded rebels, including the administering of sarin antidotes in the aftermath of the attack — exposing themselves to the deadly gas in the process.