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Conflict leaves scarred pupils


The 16-year Kurdish war is costing children their education - and some of their teachers have paid with their lives.

KURDISH children in south-east Turkey are forced to parade past the national flag each morning and chant "I am proud to be a Turk".

Such manifestations of the government's "assimilation" programme are the result of 16 years of brutal war between the army and Kurdish rebels.

The conflict has left schools starved of investment and children psychologically scarred by trauma.

"When they are asked to paint pictures in art class they draw burning houses and animals, soldiers, a tree without leaves," said Hayrettin Altun, the Diyarbakir branch secretary of the teacher's union Egitim Sen. "When you ask them: 'where are the leaves?' They answer: 'the soldiers burnt them'."

On the wall of the union branch in Diyarbakir there are photos of teachers killed in front of their classes. During the conflict some 30,000 people have been killed, many by unknown assassins. But there is no psychological support for the children left behind.

"With a system that doesn't provide classrooms, do you think they'll provide therapists?" Mr Altun asked.

About 4,000 villages in the south-east, where 90 per cent of people are Kurdish, were forcibly evacuated by the security forces as part of their counter-insurgency campaign. Many villages were also burnt to the ground. With the resultant migration to the cities and no investment in new schools in 15 years, class sizes have shot up.

"We have 150 primary and secondary schools in the Diyarbakir region for 173,000 kids. That's about 80 to a classroom," said Figen Aras, the union deputy branch secretary and a high-school teacher. "How can thy get an education this way?"

Within the traditional society of south-eastern Turkey, a collapsing education system hits female students hardest.

"We estimate that about 30 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls don't get any education," said Ms Aras. "Families lost their land when the village was evacuated - so they use the children as extra pairs of hands. If they have to choose which one to keep back, they choose the girl."

The psychological effects of the conflict on children displaced by violence are also strong.

"You find the children are either really withdrawn or aggressively extrovert," said Cygdem Gezer, a high-school teacher. "All of them have a fear of losing a father, a brother, a friend."

The fighting died down after the capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, but teachers have faced a new problem.

"Some 145 teachers who spoke out about what was going on have been posted to (other) parts of Turkey, where they are not welcome," said Mr Altun, himself one such "exile".

High-school teacher Ahmed Yildirim said that this was part of the "assimilation programme". The overwhelming majority Kurdish population in south-east Turkey speak their own language at home but, since the beginning of the Turkish Republic 75 years ago, have been banned from speaking it at school.

Ali Gulser, 10, who went back to school on Monday, said: "Every morning we parade and they make us chant, "I am a Turk, I am proud to be a Turk."

"Children have to learn in an alien language," added Mr Yildirim. "Their performance is just going down and down. The number of people from Diyarbakir gaining university places is 60 per cent less than it was when the conflict began."

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