Hamad fled the initial fighting in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan last June with over 500 students and just ten teachers. He was in an education center in the town of Kadugli when fighting broke out. Initially he led them higher into the mountains where they might be safe, thinking that the fighting might last just a few days. But continued indiscriminate aerial bombardments by the Sudanese Armed Forces forced many to take shelter in caves and soon made him decide he had to lead the children away to South Sudan.
Hamad and his youthful entourage traveled for one week by foot through the mud of the rainy season, losing some students in the chaos of the flight and having to leave others behind. A gun attack along the way killed three students and injured four others. By the time Hamad reached Yida there were only 264 children still with him. Before long Hamad would go back and return with another 74.
Hamad was among the first to arrive in Yida, now a sprawling camp of 28,000 refugees located roughly 20 miles from the Sudanese border. Humanitarians on the ground estimate that 74 percent of Yida’s population is under the age of 18.
Hamad was an education officer back in Kadugli and it becomes quickly apparent that he is fond of numbers. As I sit before his makeshift desk in one of the many straw shelters dotting the camp he continues to rattle off some startling statistics. Of the approximately 5,000 students in the camp, 3,108 are what he calls “unaccompanied minors” living in the camp without parents. To deal with this over the past six months Hamad has set up three “boarding schools” with older students taking care of the younger ones. The schools include nearly 5,000 total students and just 139 voluntary teachers.
The state of education is poor to say the least. One textbook is shared by the three schools rotating on a weekly basis. “The students can only listen,” Hamad tells me, “there is nothing to write with.” There seems to be some reluctance to provide books as UN officials see the camp as unsafe and would prefer that the refugees move to a place further from the border. Indeed the camp itself was bombed in November with one thankfully unexploded bomb landing outside a school. For their part, many refugees see alternative locations as equally dangerous plagued by militias and dangerous ethnic tensions and would prefer to stay in the area they know.
Meanwhile, the refugee population is growing. Hamad tells me that 274 new students recently registered for his schools. Another 170 refugees arrived the day before I met Hamad and just before sitting down with him I spoke with more exhausted refugees who had just arrived on a tractor. And he expects more.
As difficult as things are in the camp, the situation in most of the Nuba Mountains is much worse. Aerial bombardments continue both day and night forcing children and elderly to remain living in caves. The bombing and fighting prevented farmers from planting crops and the Government of Sudan continues to block humanitarian aid to the area. Famine experts expect conditions to reach one level under full fledged famine in the coming weeks.
Hamad is ready. He is an educator and whether in the Nuba Mountains or in a refugee camp, whether with several text books or just one, he will continue to carry out his calling. But having seen the effects of the Government of Sudan’s actions first-hand, Hamad leaves me with an appeal for assistance and a cry for the international community to take note of the plight of the innocent youth of Yida and the countless other “unaccompanied minors” continuing to suffer under Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s actions.