The teachers' staff-room is a charming thatched building adjacent to the classrooms overlooking the dusty recreation and assembly ground at Good Hope Basic Primary School in Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity State in South Sudan.
Bentiu is near the disputed border with Sudan and within striking distance of Sudanese fighter jets and warplanes.
In recent weeks, there have been aerial bombardments targeting newly-independent South Sudan that both the White House and the United Nations have condemned. A U.N. Security Council resolution has told the two Sudans to stop fighting, sit down and negotiate a settlement to their outstanding disputes over oil and borders.
Students like Dalat Stephen Kuong, 17, worry that the fear of more air strikes is keeping South Sudanese children away from classes at Good Hope.
"Right now, the northern Arabs are still bombarding us, because they are still feeling bad things," she says. "In school, we don't have any children. Maybe in class you can find 50 pupils." Stephen Kuong says there used to be many more at her school.
Rebuilding Education After War
Long years of civil war, exile and life as refugees have disrupted the education system in South Sudan. They are still catching up nearly a year after seceding from neighboring Sudan.
None of that, however, stops South Sudan's students having passionate opinions about their new homeland, their hopes and especially their neighbors in the north.
"Are they going to give us back our land?" Stephen Kuong says of the Sudanese, referring to quarrels about territory, boundary demarcation and oil revenues.
"Maybe if they say they are going to give us back our land, maybe the children will come back. I want everybody to come back to South Sudan," she muses. "If they leave us in peace, maybe those people who traveled will come back."
You might expect to find rather young students at a primary school in Bentiu, but among the little ones at Good Hope are a number in their late teens, like Kuong and 19-year-old Dhoal Thuol Khan.
"They are always attacking us, bombing our children," Thuol Khan says. "And even now, there are some other schools that are not open because of this war. People are running to other countries like Kenya, Uganda."
Many students had their schooling interrupted by war, which they say is bad news for the development of freshly-minted South Sudan, the world's newest nation. They blame Sudan, across the border, for the continuing troubles between the two neighbors and for the renewed conflict, a charge the north rejects.
The classroom is full of children of all ages, some listening attentively, others chattering and whispering as kids do. But the group sharing its views on what independence and citizenship mean is totally focused.
"To me, to be South Sudanese, I need to be free in my land. No one can attack me in my land. No one can dominate me," Thuol Khan says. "We don't need to fight, but we need our rights."
Proud To Be Sudanese
Changing gears from what separates the two nations, 14-year-old James Ran Biel says he is proud to be a citizen of South Sudan. "Yes, of course," he says.
Veronica Nyeriek echoes the sentiment. "In my land, I want to be a good citizen," the 15-year-old says. "And I want to be a leader. I want to be free in my own land. I want peace, but if they refuse to make peace ... then we are ready to fight for our land."
Nyeriek wants to be a pilot, Ran Biel a surgeon and Thuol Khan an engineer — in order to build schools and hospitals to help their people in South Sudan, they say.
Thuol Khan concludes that education is the key to progress and peace in South Sudan.
"Education means you can feel free," he says. "No one can dominate you. You can get whatever you need when you are educated."
Like Nyeriek, he says he is hopeful for the future of South Sudan and that their country will not return to war with Sudan.
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