Former child soldiers in Darfur are being helped to break free from a brutal past and poverty-stricken future, thanks to small teams of intrepid Scots, discovers Su Clark
AT 12-years-old, Jeffrey became a soldier in a war that had begun long before he was born. He was given a Kalashnikov and forced to march for days. Within weeks he was fighting his first battle against other frightened children and more hardened adults. The gunfire was terrifying.
But, scared as he was, he knew he had to fight and kill to survive. He did both.
Jeffrey now sits in the calm of Kinnetti, a charity-run school in Khartoum, Sudan, which educates many of the victims of a desperate civil war that raged for all but seven of Sudan's first 56 years of independence.
The most recent conflict, which lasted 21 years, cost the lives of more than two million people and crippled the economy so that 92 per cent of the 38 million population now live below the poverty line. A fragile peace was brokered two years ago, but conflict continues in pockets. Darfur, in the west, is seldom out of the news.
Sudan is beginning to recover, but the infrastructure, particularly in the south, is devastated, and Khartoum, the capital, is flooded with refugees.
Although some have begun returning home, two million remain in camps around the capital, where there are few schools and fewer trained teachers.
The majority of children may not finish primary school and many never start. Only one in four adults in the Khartoum camps can read or write.
Jeffrey, now 18, is one of the lucky ones. Around 30 per cent of his fellow pupils are ex-child soldiers. Some, now in their 20s and 30s, spent years fighting, their childhood and education lost.
The small concrete classes bulge with 80 or more ardent scholars, tightly packed into rows, all desperate to improve themselves. Jeffrey wants to go into politics.
"You wouldn't know that these students have gone through these horrific experiences," says Hilary Ballantine, maths teacher at St Margaret's school for girls in Edinburgh and Scottish ambassador for Education Action, a voluntary organisation that supports schools in conflict-affected countries in Africa and the Middle East.
"The school has a very gentle approach to students, and many of the teachers have had training in therapy. The message is to co-exist peacefully, which is difficult in a country torn by unrest."
A veteran of Education Action's Insight programme, which takes British teachers into these areas to raise awareness, Mrs Ballantine was in Lebanon last year, days before conflict erupted, and the previous year in Uganda, another victim of civil war. But she reckons Sudan is the worst she has seen.
"The camps are heart-breaking, - mud huts sitting amongst the sand, and little else," says Mrs Ballantine, who has raised more than pound;15,000 for the charity in the past three years .
This February, for the first time, Education Action was able to time its trip to suit Scottish holidays, and three took up the challenge. Josephine Breton, a peripatetic music specialist from Aberdeenshire, and Mandi Thomson, a teacher at Edinburgh Academy's primary school, who will both raise pound;5,000 for the charity, joined Mrs Ballantine in Sudan. Each was partnered with a teacher in one of the camps, at schools that consisted of small mud huts with open doors and windows. The sand blew about constantly.
"It made your throat hurt it was so dry," says Ms Breton, who spent the afternoons teaching at an Arabic-speaking primary school in Soba Aradi camp, home to 300,000 displaced people.
"And the classrooms were so packed with students it was almost impossible to move around and be more interactive with them. I wanted to show the teachers how much better it was to be flexible and creative in class, but you are stuck out at the front."
While the aim of the visit was to share good practice and help in the training of teachers, most of whom have had no higher education or teacher training, the Scots also had much to gain. Ms Breton travelled to Sudan heavy with tambourines and maracas for the resource-starved schools, and returned bearing their gifts - recordings of singing and playing that she can use in her own teaching.
"Using these and the photos, I can build a resource to share with other teachers to bring global education to life for our children," she explains.
"It will contain references to the child soldiers I met at Kinnetti, but that will only be used with older pupils."
She is also keen to develop the materials so they can be used across the curriculum, not just in her music lessons or personal and social education.
Pupils studying the Second World War, for example, will be able to compare the lives of evacuees in the two different eras. In Victorian studies, they will be able to see how poverty affected British children in the 18th century, then how it continues to affects those struggling to survive in camps today.
Ms Thomson, who has been a teacher for nine years, is also looking forward to sharing her experiences with pupils back in Edinburgh. "Our worlds are poles apart," she says. "We were there during their winter, so it was a pleasant temperature for us. But the conditions were incredible. The sand was everywhere, and the classrooms were so cramped.
"There is no chance of moving around and the teacher's desk is just a couple of feet from the rows of children.
"Students have jotters, but they have to share pens, which means they have to wait patiently until their neighbours have finished. Can you imagine that happening in Scottish schools?
"I want to use my experiences to make my pupils really aware of the differences."
One difference is that, at Kinnetti, lessons are held from 2.15pm until 6pm, when the heat can be unbearable. But this is the only way it can function. A different school uses the buildings in the morning, during which time many Kinnetti pupils work to pay the pound;25 annual fee.
Jeffrey works as a night watchman. Since he left the army, attempts have been made to re-recruit him, but, like his fellow pupils, he has resisted.
He now plans to take up a different weapon - words instead of guns - to fight the old enemy, poverty.
Teachers interested in Education Action's Insight programme, contact Hilary Ballantine on email@example.com