The school is silent. There are no teachers giving lessons, no children playing in the playground. The bell that calls pupils to class swings gently from a tree, completely ignored.
Inside, tables and chairs lie on their sides while pages from old textbooks litter the floor. On the blackboard is a long-forgotten lesson: French verbs in white chalk and the date in the top right corner – 18 December 2012.
Too afraid to go to school
It has been over 9 months since the conflict began and yet hundreds of schools like this one remain closed across the Central African Republic.
“There is no one left here to teach us,” 16-year-old Jean tells me, sitting idly outside his house with his older brother Marcel. “All the teachers ran away when the fighting began and now we hear that they are all in the capital and that they are too afraid to come back.
“Sometimes we get our exercise books out and read through old lessons. But we spend most of the time either helping on the family farm or just sitting around… there’s nothing else to do here.”
Marcel, who at 17 should be in his last year of school, interrupts his brother: “It has been so long since the schools closed. We are getting old and if we go back we will not have progressed… I worked hard, I would study at night and now I am getting left behind. It’s not fair.
“I’ve heard that the schools that have already opened elsewhere have been attacked,” he continues. “That gangs come and kidnap students and demand money from their families for their return. Everyone has heard this… this is why people are too afraid to go back to school.”
Neither is sure when they will be able to return. “Until there is peace here nothing will change,” Marcel declares. “Children like us will just stay in our villages, doing nothing and getting older… I worry all the time that I will never get the chance to finish my education…that this (as he points to his old exercise books) is all I will have.”
Education cannot wait
All too often, education becomes a casualty of conflict. Here in the Central African Republic, thousands of children are being denied the opportunity to learn, develop and fulfil their true potential.
On 23 September,as part of the Education Cannot Wait event held during the United Nations General Assembly, global leaders warned that more than 28 million children in countries affected by conflict are still being denied access to learning. Education simply cannot wait for battles to end, disasters to be averted or funding to be made available.
Tove Wang, CEO of Save the Children Norway, summed it up: “We all have a duty to the children of the world to deliver good quality education, regardless of the hostile conditions under which they live.” For Jean and Marcel’s sake, we must hope we can achieve this before it is too late.
All names changed to protect identities