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Feature: Students’ resilience, the struggle to rebuild education in war-ravaged Tigray

Classes were originally set to begin in mid-April by the Educational Bureau of Tigray, but due to the terrible war’s effects, the plan didn’t go into force until three months ago (Photo: Kindeya G/Hiwot)

By Mihret G Kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – Two years ago, Abrha Weldetsadik, a 20-year-old boy attending Gebreayiga Primary School in the remote village of Samre Woreda, located 40 kilometers away from the regional capital, Mekelle, found himself in a dire situation due to the devastating war that had ravaged northern Ethiopia, including the Tigray region. Before the conflict, Abrha was an ambitious eighth grader at Gebreayiga Primary School, which boasted state-of-the-art facilities such as computers and libraries. However, since the outbreak of the war, these resources have been reduced to ruins. “Schools and public services have been destroyed,” laments Abrha.

Abrha is the second eldest of nine siblings in his family, with only four remaining in the village, all striving for education. Unfortunately, his younger sister is the only one still studying, while the other two siblings have fled to another city in search of a better life. “Our family simply cannot provide enough food and school supplies for everyone,” he explains.

His parents, who are farmers, struggle with the hardships of their livelihood. As a result, Abrha’s underage brothers are forced to work instead of attending school, as migration seemed to be their only option. “We used to live a relatively comfortable life, but now, even having a proper breakfast or dinner is uncertain,” said Abrha, who is happy to resume his education despite the suffering of the past two years.

Following a peace agreement between the federal government and the TPLF, the education bureau in Tigray initially planned to resume schooling in mid-April 2023. However, due to the circumstances at that time, the plan couldn’t be carried out until three months ago. In May 2023, the interim administration promptly adopted and reopened schools across the region, except in areas under foreign forces, specifically the western and southern parts of Tigray.

Despite resuming his education, Abrha, known for his exceptional academic aptitude, can’t help but feel the weight of lost opportunities due to the war. If the conflict hadn’t erupted, he would have been in the 12th grade by now. “Instead, three valuable years have been wasted,” he confides with anguish.

The destructive impact of the war on the education sector in the region is still evident, with school materials destroyed, human resources diminished, and the curriculum disrupted. Kiros Guesh (Ph.D.), the head of the Education Bureau in the Tigray interim administration, states that the war brought immense damage to the region’s educational sector, including the destruction of school materials, a shortage of human resources, and incongruous schooling curricula. “We lost these elementary requirements during the war,” Kiros indicated.

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When the interim regional government finally resumed grade eight examinations across the region, only 60,000 out of the 124,000 eligible students took the exam. Among those lucky enough to take the exam was Abrha, who fulfilled his three-year-old dream when he sat for the exam on 05 July, 2023.

The situation at the remaining levels of education is equally dismal. Initially, the regional education bureau anticipated 2.4 million students returning to school, but only 660,000 students registered, accounting for a mere 23% of the total student population in the region. This means that an alarming 77% of students remain out of school. This is partly due to the fact that 552 out of the total 2,221 schools in Tigray remain inaccessible due to the presence of Eritrean and Amhara forces in the region. The whereabouts and current status of the majority of the 55,000 teachers in the region also remain unknown. On top of this, thousands of students in Tigray are dropping out due to a lack of educational materials and widespread hunger, despite the reopening of education.

Weldegebreal Gesessew, the principal of Gebreayiga Elementary School, has reported a distressing situation regarding the dropouts in his school. Since the reopening of schools, 70 students have been forced to leave due to hunger and economic crises. The lingering effects of the war have left the remaining students traumatized, necessitating special attention and support. Weledegebreal appeals, “We urgently need assistance to bring our students back to school.”

Gebreayiga Primary School, which now resembles an abandoned camp, was once a thriving educational facility with cutting-edge amenities including libraries and computers (Photo: Gebreayiga Primary School)

One of the key obstacles hindering the full functionality of education in Tigray is the presence of internally displaced people (IDPs), particularly those who have sought refuge in school classrooms in major cities like Mekelle, Shire, Aksum, and Abiy Adi after fleeing the western parts of Tigray. As a result, overcrowded and inadequate classroom spaces have become the norm, drastically impacting the learning environment.

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The prevalence of trauma and psychological distress among students like Abrha, as well as teachers, has significantly hindered their ability to achieve their educational goals. Moreover, the financial hardships faced by families due to the conflict, combined with severe drought, famine, and health insecurity, have forced students to prioritize contributing to their family’s economic wellbeing over continuing their education. Furthermore, the pervasive poverty in the region has impeded the recovery of damaged schools and the provision of adequate salaries for school staff. Consequently, teachers have been unable to fulfill their responsibilities as they, too, have had to prioritize their own survival amidst these challenging circumstances.

Despite these immense challenges, the regional interim administration has made efforts to resume schooling in Tigray, hoping that these issues will be gradually resolved over time. However, the road to recovery is steep—reconstructing and rehabilitating schools and addressing the psychological and physical trauma experienced by students and teachers all come at a significant cost. Tigray’s educational system, meticulously built over several decades, now faces the monumental task of reconstruction. Demolished schools must be rebuilt, and the loss of teachers due to deaths or displacement during the war must be compensated for. Kiros, the head of the region’s education bureau, believes that this process will take many years, if not decades, to complete.

In the face of such hardship, students like Abrha, who is currently awaiting the result of his eighth-grade exam, remain unwavering in their resolve to complete their education. Abrha firmly states, “No matter what, I will pursue my education.” AS

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