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The School of Hard Knocks

Chechen children get the rudiments of an education in tents, wooden shacks and bombed-out schoolrooms.
By Musa Yusupov

Chechnya's shattered educational system is struggling to survive the appalling depredations of an 18-month war and the stony indifference of the Russian government.

In November last year, the federal authorities claimed there were 451 schools working in the breakaway republic with a total of 190,000 pupils. There were also 11 technical colleges including the Grozny Oil Institute (with 4,500 students), the University of Chechnya (9,800) and the Chechen Pedagogical Institute (4,200).

Certainly, ministers in Moscow remain content that an August presidential decree aimed at "regenerating the economic and social sectors in Chechnya" has addressed the immediate problems.

The reality, however, is very different. During the first Chechen campaign, a total of 285 schools were damaged and 55 destroyed. Fierce fighting across the lowlands at the end of 1999 put another 165 out of action.

Only a small fraction of these buildings have been repaired or rebuilt - elsewhere teachers are forced to rely on makeshift alternatives or humanitarian aid.

In neighbouring Ingushetia, where an estimated 200,000 Chechen refugees are still living in tent camps, rented accommodation and railway carriages, the situation has long been critical.

Local schools have been swamped with refugee children and many are working in two or three shifts. Aid organisations are attempting to relieve the burden by financing schools across the Ingush republic.

In Ordzhonikidzevskaya, a UN-funded middle school, Omega, caters for around 1,000 pupils while, in Karabulak, aid workers have built wooden classrooms for refugee children living in nearby railway carriages.

The Salvation Army has opened a primary school in the Bart refugee camp where lessons are held in eight tents over three shifts. More than 550 children attend the classes.

At the same time, there are widespread shortages of textbooks and teaching materials - just 30 per cent of the required amount in Chechnya and 40 per cent in Ingushetia. Many parents refuse to send their children to school because they cannot afford decent clothes and shoes.

Some help has come from private sources - this year, fund-raisers in Krasnodar donated equipment for six computer classes to Chechen schools while the Astrakhan local administration sent 150 tables and 300 chairs.

In Chechnya itself, safety continues to be a real concern. Extremist Chechen rebel groups have accused teachers of collaborating with the Russian authorities whilst, even in the so-called occupied territories, schools have become targets for federal bombardments.

In the summer of 2000, Olga Klimova, head of Grozny's Middle School No. 10, was shot together with her family and Lyudmila Netsvetaeva, a university inspector, was executed last November. In the same month, rebel snipers shot dead two school workers at Ishkhoy-Yurt, near Gudermes, for gathering firewood to heat local classrooms.

At the end of last year, there were several reports of schools in Mesker-Yurt and Shali being damaged by artillery bombardments. On December 20, five students were killed and four others seriously injured when Russian mortar shells hit Grozny's Pedagogical Institute. The incident sparked mass protests and several colleges were temporarily closed.

Furthermore most schools encounter severe behavioral problems amongst children who have been traumatised by the fighting. Many have developed a deep-seated hatred for all things Russian and resist any attempts to impose Russian educational values. Others are in desperate need of psychological treatment.

Teachers across the rebel republic are calling for a return to traditional values in the schoolroom, promoting local religion and ethnic culture. They want to see the Chechen language taught in primary schools with Russian only dominating the curriculum after the fourth year.

However, the Russian authorities - apparently indifferent to the problems of education in Chechnya as a whole - have proved themselves ultra-sensitive to these issues and, while Chechnya remains under martial law, the schoolrooms are likely to remain strictly policed.

Musa Yusupov is an independent Chechen journalist from Grozny

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