At least 250 schools were looted or occupied during recent fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern Kivu provinces, following similar incidents earlier this year, the UN Children's Fund announced Monday.
"Families and different parties involved in the conflict have occupied or looted 250 more schools since September in North and South Kivu," the UN agency said in a statement, asking for $6 million dollars (4.6 million euros) to back projects in the two provinces.
"The latest clashes in North Kivu have raised the total number of schools affected by conflict this year to more than 600, which is more than double the number three months ago," UNICEF said.
After a relative truce of several weeks, the army and the M23 rebel movement resumed fighting and the rebels seized the North Kivu capital of Goma for 11 days from November 20. The conflict displaced 130,000 people in and around the city.
Many displaced people "took refuge in schools, which were used as kitchens, canteens, dormitories, barracks and weapons depots (...) The school books and benches were even used as firewood," according to UNICEF.
The agency stressed that 240,000 pupils missed weeks of schooling after the desertion from the army in April of the mutineers who created the M23 in May. The positions of the armed movement, one of many in the region, are close to the borders with Rwanda and Uganda, which deny UN allegations of backing M23.
To keep children in school is "essential for their protection," UNICEF said. "When they are not in school, the children of North Kivu are at greater risk of being exploited, mistreated and even recruited (as child soldiers)," warned Barbara Bentein, UNICEF representative in the DR Congo.
"We fear that many children could have difficulty in making up lost time and taking their exams. They even risk losing their school year or abandoning school. Every hour counts," Congolese Minister of Education Maker Mwangu Famba said.
Some 80,000 children in North Kivu are due to receive a kit for school by the end of the year.© ANP/AFP