Christmas Appeal: How school can heal the scars left by Sierra Leone's civil war

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In Britain, he might be categorised as a juvenile delinquent. But Adbul's problems are not born out of the inner-cities. The clues to understanding his misbehaviour are the strange scarrings found on the top of his head. A three-inch scar that runs down his forehead was left by a soldier's bayonet while a round indentation at the back of his head is where a bullet was deliberately fired across his skull. Neither the bayonet nor the bullet were meant to kill Abdul, just punish him for his disobedience.

In 1999, Abdul, then only nine years old, was abducted by the rebel soldiers fighting in Sierra Leone's civil war. They wanted him to join their forces and, to test his loyalty, one of the soldiers told him to shoot a woman prisoner.

"I did not like to do it so I didn't," says Abdul. The soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front had a reputation for using brutal force to confront acts of defiance. So one of the soldiers took his bayonet and swept it across Abdul's face. He then repeated the order. Despite the bleeding wound Abdul continued to refuse to obey. Another soldier grabbed the boy, placed the barrel of his AK-47 along the back of his head and fired a bullet across his skull.

"The soldiers had ways of punishing people without killing them," says Adbul's teacher, Forday Korama, the headmaster of a primary school in Makani in the country's north-east.

"Abdul has had a terrible time, lived through some horrific circumstances, and has been difficult to teach. Because of his head injury, he stopped growing as quickly as the other children and so they used to tease him about his size. This made him mad and he reacted violently. But we kept working on him, putting him at the front of the class and giving him more responsibility."

This year, Abdul will take his first exam. "We think he is ready. He has made excellent progress and has become a role model for other children in the school."

Many other child victims of the war, which cost 50,000 lives, have not been so lucky. They have ended up in amputee camps or war-victim ghettoes, educated in isolation where they have little expectation of passing anything.

More than two-thirds of Sierra Leone's children have been affected by the war. Some, like Abdul, are orphaned or bear the physical scars of the conflict. Many more are suffering from the psychological trauma of what they witnessed and experienced. In nearly every case. the child's education has been disrupted.

After the end of the war in January 2002, the new government, swamped by refugees, decided to send the victims to amputee camps or special schools that had traditionally catered for all those considered to be outside mainstream education. These special schools were for children with polio or other disabilities, which in Sierra Leone includes short-sightedness or unruly behaviour.

Now the government is rethinking its education policy. Demonstrations, such as an amputee-led protest in the capital, Freetown, earlier this month, show that the general public wants change. Ministers have ended the school apartheid system, where children were stigmatised at an early age for having minor disabilities.

Julius Fisher is the government schools inspector with responsibility for helping to make the new policy work. "The war has made this a real problem. For example, during the war, many children couldn't have their polio vaccinations so on top of all the other consequences of the war, we have a generation of children suffering with polio. Should they all be sent to special schools?"

In Sierra Leone, in common with many other parts of Africa, polio is considered to be the work of satanic witchcraft. Such deeply embedded prejudices mean that parents will often disown children with polio. "We need to educate people so that they change their attitude. But we also need to educate these children in the same classrooms as the other ordinary children," says Mr Fisher.

The government is working closely with Education Action International, one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal, to help bring about this change.

The key to their inclusive education project is ensuring that the teachers are equipped to deal with the special needs of Adbul and thousands like him as they enter mainstream education.

Nathaniel Bockarie of Education Action's pilot project in Sierra Leone says it is important to eliminate all forms of discrimination by properly training teachers, many of whom were themselves combatants.

"We are training teachers and community educators to help ensure schools and classroom teaching meet the different needs of many different children, including war victims and many girls who have been denied access to proper education in the past," he says.

But for every success story like Abdul's, thousands of other war-victim children may never receive an education. "When I went to school, 30 years ago, my parents could not afford to buy me shoes," Mr Bockarie says. "Today there are children who aren't being allowed to go to school because they have had a leg or arm chopped off in the war. We should not make their suffering worse by denying them an education.

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