Fresh start for Somalia's children: The reopening of elementary schools provides hope for the future. Karl Maier reports from Mogadishu

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The Independent Online
THE CHANTING of scores of little children echoed through the crumbling halls at the University of Somalia campus on the outskirts of Mogadishu, where hundreds of families displaced by the civil war sleep in offices and lecture halls.

For the first time in two years classes had resumed in a small building, which was still in reasonable condition after armed gunmen over the past 18 months had finished looting and kidnapping teachers who happened to be from clans they did not like. No university students were to be found inside the dilapidated cement building, however. On the ruins of the campus, an elementary school was born yesterday.

Inside the classrooms, 200 boys and girls were chanting the Somali alphabet, dressed in new blue- and-grey uniforms. They sat on freshly-cut wooden benches, handmade by the teachers.

Most elementary school teachers of today were once professors at the university, until it was closed down in January 1991 with the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre. His ouster by a loose coalition of clan militias set off a civil war among the former allies that brought the country to its knees, caused widespread famine, and robbed millions of Somali children of any hope of an education.

Now, an independent women's group called Ida, with backing from the German branch of the charity Caritas, has decided to begin the process of rebuilding Somalia by educating its children. 'We say that since the men have brought the country to such a state, it is now our turn,' said Amina Haji Abdullahi, a former university lecturer and head of Ida's Education Department.

The students are children of families displaced by the months of artillery duels fought between the main clan militias, one led by General Mohamed Farah Aideed and the other by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who battled for control of Mogadishu between November 1991 and January 1992.

The teachers, used to a university atmosphere, admit their new task requires an adjustment. 'It's very difficult to go from being a university professor to teaching little children,' said Dahair Ali Mahmud, 56, an Arabic professor who had fled in January 1991 to the southern town of Kismayu. He returned this year, but left his family there because Mogadishu was still too dangerous.

Despite the presence of 29,000 foreign, mainly US, troops in Somalia to secure food supplies to famine victims, Mogadishu, as Col Mike Hagee of the US Directorate of Military Operations said on Monday, 'is still potentially very dangerous'. The danger in reaching the university campus was made clear yesterday when visitors to the school had to be escorted by two American military Humvee vehicles carrying a handful of troops with M-16 assault rifles.

Even something as innocuous as opening an elementary school can create tensions in Somalia. The only other schools operating these days are run by Muslim fundamentalists, whose Koranic classes and feeding centres are funded largely by the fundamentalist government in Sudan, itself in the midst of a devastating civil war and famine.

'Our biggest battle, psychologically, is to fight against the idea that girls and boys should be separated in school,' said Sterling Arush, a consultant with Ida and a driving force behind the new elementary school.'

But Ms Arush and her Ida co- workers are open to compromise. The classes may be integrated, but many of the little girls cover their heads in veils.

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