Foni school children call for gov’t intervention as fighting continues in Casamance

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By Oumie Mendy

As fighting continues between Senegalese soldiers and MFDC separatists in Casamance, several schools around the border villages remain closed as families flee for their safety.

The gun battle in Casamance has disrupted education in the region and villages in Foni Bintang district are hosting thousands of internal refugees fleeing the border.

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While St Edwards in Bwiam remains opened though with very few students and teachers turning up for classes, schools in Bunubor, Funtang and Kappa remain closed.

On Monday, The Standard visited several affected communities and schools in Foni including St Edwards Upper Basic, Kappa Lower Basic and Bunubor Upper Basic schools. Residents and education authorities expressed concern over the protracted conflict in Casamance, which has spilled over and threatened lives.

Mariama Jammeh, a student at St Edward Upper Basic School, told The Standard she doesn’t feel safe in the environment and the same applies to her fellow students.

An emotional Mariama added: “We feel neglected and forgotten and freedom of movement is being hampered by a conflict that has nothing to do with The Gambia. We are so uncomfortable living here because we can no longer go to school or play in our communities freely without fear. We are not feeling safe even in our homes. I have already packed my bag to leave if the situation continues.”

She expressed concern over the risks her mother takes every morning to go to the market so they could eat.

“I feel for her because the situation is not safe at all – anything can happen to her,” she lamented, saying she hopes their liberty will be restored.

Ms Jammeh urged the government to intervene and restore peace, comfort and stability in Foni.

“We are pleading with the president to please address the situation so that our peace can be restored. We want to get back to our normal life of playing around and going to school without fearing for our lives,” she added.

Andrew Jassey, the principal of St Edward Upper Basic, said when the gun fire started they closed the school but later decided to resume.

“When the conflict started, there were gunshots and fear but students were still attending lessons. It was not until Thursday when gunshots were getting louder and terrifying that parents started calling for the release of their children and both teachers and students were compelled to flee for their safety. Since then, my school has been closed until Monday. As of now, the situation is calm because there has been only one shot that we heard in the morning and most of the students and teachers are now coming back to school,” Mr Jassey said.

Modou Peter Jarju, a resident of Bwiam, said the shooting has been a great hindrance to effective learning as well as children’s social life in the villages close to the border.

“The shooting was so loud that rooftops were shaking. Natives of the neighbouring villages like Funtang ran into the bush for safety before moving to other villages. My child narrowly escaped a bullet when she was leaving home to our neighbouring compound. She was so terrified that I had to send her to my native village in Kombo to recover from the trauma,” he told The Standard.

A senior educationist in Foni, who spoke to The Standard on condition of anonymity, reiterated the negative impact of the the conflict on learning in the area.

“Schools work on contact hours and when those hours are not covered, it means we stand at a loss. When there is noise, students lose concentration because of fear. It was just few days back that shells fell around the Gambia’s military base in Bwiam, which is terrifying,” he said.