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From Excellence to Emergency: A generation of students held hostage by conflict in Western Oromia

Students in Western Oromia, such as those enrolled at Agemsa Preparatory School in the Sulula Fincha district of the Horo Guduru Wollega Zone, have been heavily impacted by the relentless conflict that has plagued the region for the past six years (Photo: Addis Standard)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa and Natnael Fite @NatieFit

Addis Abeba – The introduction of modern education to Ethiopia during the early to mid-twentieth century heralded a significant transformation in Western Oromia, particularly within the four zones of Wollega, which evolved into a center of academic distinction, producing numerous accomplished students who enhanced Ethiopia’s reputation internationally.

However, this era of success has become a distant memory.

In stark contrast to their former glory, the classrooms of Horro Guduru Wollega, East Wollega, West Wollega, and Kellem Wollega zones now bear witness to a different reality.

Six years of relentless conflict have shattered Western Oromia’s legacy of intellectual prowess, leaving a pervasive sense of despair where once stood the pride of high-achieving students.

The ongoing violence and instability have inflicted widespread devastation on civilians, crippling social and economic institutions, and leaving the once-thriving education sector in ruins.

The conflict’s disruptive impact on Western Oromia’s education is exemplified by the experience of Dadhitu Amsala, a twelfth-grade student. 

In 2022, following an event she described as “an attack by an armed group from the Amhara region called Fano” in the Kiramu district of East Wollega Zone, Dadhitu was displaced from her home along with her family.

The attack compelled Dadhitu and her family to flee their hometown, leaving behind their belongings and forcing Dadhitu to interrupt her studies, at least temporarily. Consequently, they sought refuge in Nekemte town.

Dadhitu and her family are not the only victims of displacement due to conflicts.

In the heart of Western Oromia, an enduring conflict between government forces and armed groups, including the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the non-state militia, Fano, from the neighboring Amhara region, has led to widespread displacement and dire socioeconomic repercussions.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Western Oromia is home to nearly 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) out of a total of 1.5 million across Oromia.

Forced from their hometown by such conflict, Dadhitu’s primary concern became her family’s well-being. To contribute to their livelihood, she took on a role assisting with a small tea house run by her mother and younger brothers.

“We make tea and biscuits to support our family,” she stated.

A perceived improvement in the security situation in October 2023 prompted Dadhitu and her family to return to Kiramu. However, resuming her studies after a two-year interruption proved to be a significant challenge.

The lingering anxieties within the village, coupled with the academic ground lost during her displacement, have severely hampered her ability to prepare for the upcoming national examinations.

“Our village is still gripped by fear,” she lamented. “Since our return to Kiramu, our lives have been upended, making it difficult for me to concentrate on my studies.”

In an interview with Addis Standard, Dadhitu expressed a significant reduction in her school attendance, stating she could only manage to go “once or twice a week.” This limited access to education has caused her to lose faith in her ability to succeed.

Dadhitu’s experience reflects the broader challenge faced by many students in the region who have been unable to attend school regularly due to security concerns.

The physical and emotional trauma from the assault forced me to abandon my education.”

Victim of gender based violence

The detrimental effects of regional instability and violence on educational opportunities, particularly within Western Oromia, have been documented in numerous reports.

A 2023 assessment conducted by the Center for Development and Capacity Building (CDCB) in Oromia’s conflict zones revealed a concerning landscape. The ongoing instability has led to the closure of 730 schools, displacing an estimated 210,000 students from their education.

Additionally, 117 teachers and education professionals have left their positions. The report further highlights the erosion of social norms within conflict areas, where brutality and lawlessness have taken hold due to the collapse of social institutions.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to the latest report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 6,670 schools in the country have been damaged, while an additional 6,410 schools remain closed due to various factors, including instability, drought, and natural disasters such as floods. As a result, a staggering 8.85 million children in Ethiopia are currently out of school.

Educators highlight that even students who manage to attend school face a challenging learning environment.

A teacher (name withheld) at Kombolcha Primary School in Kombolcha district of Horro Guduru zone, spoke to Addis Standard about the various disruptions students are experiencing.

“Overcrowded classrooms increase the risk of infectious diseases spreading among students,” he explained. “Recently, there have been outbreaks of measles reported in Guduru district schools.”

The teacher further noted that other educational institutions have been rendered inoperable due to various factors, resulting in a surge of number of students in few schools found in a relatively stable areas.

“For instance, government troops have occupied Migiru Primary School in Abay Choman district, Horo Guduru Wollega zone, preventing the school from functioning,” he said.

Another teacher from a school in Finca’a, a town in Horro Guduru zone, western Oromia, corroborated these concerns, emphasizing the detrimental impact of years of conflict on student learning and mental health.

Displaced people in the Gida Ayana district, located within the East Wollega zone of the Oromia region, were subjected to insufficient provisions of food, water, and medical services for an extended period (Photo: Gida Ayana Communication Bureau)

The teacher pointed to ongoing security challenges as a key factor in declining academic performance.

“Previously, students felt safe studying outdoors,” he explained, “but fear now prevents them from doing so. Additionally, limited access to libraries for consistent study hinders their ability to focus.”

He further highlighted the disruptive presence of soldiers stationed in schools, negatively affecting both the teaching and learning process and student well-being.

“Students are caught in the crossfire between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA),” he noted. “They face suspicion and harassment from both sides, creating a hostile environment that diverts their attention from academics.”

Shattered dreams

Dropping out of school represents merely the surface of the problem, particularly for female students, who are the primary targets of gender-based violence (GBV).

During times of conflict and war, women and children face an increased risk of various forms of harm, with women being particularly susceptible to targeted violence, including sexual assault.

This alarming trend is evident in the ongoing conflict in Western Oromia.

Derartu Gemechu (name changed for safety) was a 15-year-old student in the Horo district of Horo Guduru Wollega Zone when she endured a traumatic event.

On January 22, 2023, while on her way to Cahi Primary School for an afternoon program, she was raped by individuals she identified as “Fano” militants operating in the area.

Exhibiting remarkable courage in the face of immense hardship, Derartu chose to speak openly about her experience. 

“The physical and emotional trauma from the assault forced me to abandon my education,” she told Addis Standard in a sorrowful voice.

Habtamu Tizazu, the Education Affairs Coordinator of the Gurmu Development Association in the Horro Guduru Wollega zone, highlighted the alarming prevalence of sexual assaults, including rape, affecting many students amidst clashes involving various armed groups and government forces.

“Urgent protection measures are crucial to safeguarding students during this perilous time,” he emphasized.

Habtamu indicated that more than 15,000 students in the Horo Guduru Wollega Zone are currently unable to attend school due to security concerns.

He emphasized that nine schools within the zone’s Jardega Jarte district have been impacted by these security issues and have been forced to close.

According to him, these schools have reportedly suffered from property loss, including looted equipment, and some have even sustained damage to classrooms.

 In response to the disruptions caused by security problems, the Gurmu Development Association has actively sought to mitigate the impact on education in the Horro Guduru Wollega, East Wollega, and West Shewa zones.

As Habtamu explained, the association is working to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning processes by providing and repairing classroom equipment.

“We are facilitating the education of 900 internally displaced students by establishing temporary schools, providing training, and hiring teachers in the Harkasa, Horo Buluq, Shambu, and Guduru districts,” Habtamu elaborated. “Furthermore, we are extending our efforts to reach students in the Sasiga district and other areas of the East Wellega zone who have been displaced from their education due to security challenges.”

Expressing deep concern about the potential long-term consequences, Habtamu emphasized that the unresolved security situation could have a significant detrimental impact on students’ academic achievement, mental well-being, and overall development.

He called for urgent action to address the security issues affecting these vulnerable students. AS

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