Displaced Muslim teens learn computer skills at Catholic mission

Bangassou, Central African Republic – As an IT specialist, Djamaladine Mahamat Salet is used to providing solutions to complex problems.

When he discovered there were no high-school classes for the displaced children in his community, he decided to start teaching them basic computer skills. 

The big challenge was that he would have to do so without electricity, an internet connection, and no laptops.

“These children are stuck here due to this conflict,” said 38-year-old Salet. “I am trying to prepare these students so that when they can finally go on to university, they will thrive.”

To deal with the lack of power, Salet, who is also a displaced person, rigged a car battery to solar panels to generate a steady supply for the students.

Central African Republic (CAR), an impoverished nation of around 4.6 million, has been mired in conflict since 2013, when the Seleka – a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebels – overthrew the government of Francois Bozize. 

Oussna Abdraman, 17, takes notes while studying at the computer lab on the grounds of the Bangassou Catholic mission [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

 A group called the Anti-balaka, which is made up mostly of Christian fighters, formed to counter the Seleka and during the ongoing fighting both sides have committed atrocities.

Salet is one of around 1,600 displaced Muslims who have been sheltering at the Catholic mission in Bangassou since May 2017, when Anti-balaka fighters waged a campaign of violence against the local Muslim community. 

More than 100 Muslims, including Salet’s 63-year-old father, were killed before Portuguese troops from MINUSCA, the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in CAR, were able to intervene and escort the survivors to safety.

The years of conflict have taken a heavy toll on the country’s education system. 

The ruins of a Muslim home that was destroyed in 2017 by members of the predominantly Christian Anti-Balaka militia is seen in the Tokoyo neighbourhood of Bangassou [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

Since 2017, the United Nations has documented more than 85 cases – with 24 incidents so far in 2018 – of attacks, looting, or occupation of schools by armed groups.

More than 350 schools have been closed due to the surge in violence. 

According to UNICEF, a third of children in CAR are unable to attend school, and fewer than 50 percent complete their primary education. 

Of those who do, only about half go on to continue their studies after the primary level. The latest figures indicate there are around 272,000 internally displaced children in CAR and that nearly 116,000 of them are not in school.

Salet, who is also displaced, repositions a pair of solar panels outside the computer lab. He has rigged up a car battery to the panels so students have a relatively steady supply of power [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

“As a result of persisting violence, children and youth are exposed to all sorts of abuse and exploitation [such as] enrolment in armed groups, criminal and banditry acts, sexual exploitation and abuse, child marriage and early pregnancies,” explained Christine Muhigana, UNICEF’s country representative in the CAR.

We are very concerned about the lasting impact this crisis is having on children. We have a whole generation growing up traumatised, without proper education, without healthcare and constantly exposed to the most horrific violence,” she said. 

At Petit Seminaire Saint Louis, the settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bangassou, Salet saw how the conflict affected children. 

Morale was particularly low among the 108 high-school-age students.

Around 1,600 displaced Muslims have been taking refuge at the Catholic mission since May of 2017, when the predominantly Christian Anti-balaka carried out a violent campaign targeting the local Muslim community [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

“All the gunfire affects children, it unsettles them,” said Salet. “That’s one reason I decided to open this [computer lab]. To help take their minds off the conflict and put them more at ease.”

Salet says he approached several aid agencies to ask for support, but none agreed to take part. In the end, he turned to his community for help. 

By late 2017, Salet managed to borrow four laptops from displaced families and construct a small computer lab from leftover wood, tarpaulins and mesh wire and powers them with the solar panels he rigged to the car batteries. 

In December 2017, classes began with Salet teaching four two-hour sessions each day, Monday to Friday, with 10 students in each class. The lab is even open Saturdays for children who want extra learning time.

A displaced Muslim boy sleeps on the ground. For the 108 high-school-age children at the IDP site, there are no formal classes offered [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

Seventeen-year-old Oussna Abdraman has been studying with Salet for almost three months, during which she has learned Microsoft Word, Excel, Windows, general computer functions and how to use the internet. 

“Without going to a regular school, we feel like we are losing out on the opportunity to learn. We feel like we have only a low level of education.” 

The computer classes, she said, have helped to lift their spirits. 

Abdraman would eventually like to work at a bank. 

“Inshallah (God willing), I will be able to go on and study at university. I would like to continue studying computers and get a degree in economics,” she said. “Knowing computer skills … it will help me with research and help me in everyday subjects like biology or history,” she added.

Like other teenagers at the settlement, Abdraman longs to resume something resembling a normal life. “We feel very bad having to stay here, because there is no freedom of movement. There is also a lack of food, and we have to sleep on the ground. It’s not comfortable,” she said. 

It remains unclear when Bangassou’s Muslims will be able to return to their homes and rebuild. Most houses and businesses owned by Muslims were destroyed and looted during the events of last year.

A displaced Muslim woman carries water at the settlement in Bangassou [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre Munos, who oversees Bangassou’s Catholic mission, said there is still “a climate of mistrust” between the religious communities, but that both sides are gradually beginning to accept each other. 

“Some activities paralysed because of this crisis have resumed, for example, the central market is open every day. All political, civil, military and religious leaders are working for the return of peace and social cohesion, living together and returning displaced people to their homes,” the bishop said. 

Ali Idriss, chief of Muslim IDPs at Petit Seminaire Saint Louis, said that safety remains a concern and that rebuilding their lives and businesses will prove difficult without outside support.

“We have nothing. We all lost our houses. People have taken over the land in some places and built new homes,” he said. “We want to go home. We have the will to do so, but the situation is still very difficult. There is no security.”

In many situations with guns and killing, it is difficult to solve these problems. But man is able to change, and in doing so he can change such situations to achieve peace.

Djamaladine Mahamat Salet, IT specialist, IDP and computer lab founder

Yvon Walaka, spokesman for the local so-called “self-defence group”, which is made up of former Anti-balaka fighters, tried to paint a different picture of the situation. 

He said that the Muslims sheltering on the church grounds can return to their land when they hand over any firearms in their possession to MINUSCA, as he claims the former Anti-balaka fighters have done.

“You don’t see us carrying guns. You don’t hear anyone shooting in the air. We want peace,” he claimed. 

Back at the IDP settlement, Salet says that a divided population must find common ground in order to live in harmony. 

“In many situations with guns and killing, it is difficult to solve problems. But man is able to change, and in doing so, he can change such situations to achieve peace,” said Salet. 

Even something as simple as computer classes can bridge divides, he added.

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