BOUAKE, 20 June (IRIN) - More than 60,000 schoolchildren in the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire, who have been stuck in educational limbo for the past year, may finally be able to sit their delayed exams in August, the government has announced.
If peace holds, a similar number of children who just completed their 2004/2005 school year in the north should also be able to sit primary and secondary school leaving exams in August.
In a statement earlier this month, Education Minister Michel Amani N'Guessan gave the green light for the 2004 and 2005 exams to take place concurrently in the north.
The concession was one of several measures aimed at easing tension in the three-year civil war as the government and rebels attempt to follow a roadmap for peace that provides first for disarmament, then for presidential elections on 30 October.
The August exams should allow primary school leavers in rebel territory to progress to secondary school, and enable secondary school leavers to sit their final exams.
Amani N'Guessan said children throughout Cote d'Ivoire should then start the 2005/2006 academic year together on 10 October.
A few government teachers and health workers have been sent back to the north as confidence-building moves get under way. Meanwhile, companies in the rebel zone are once more being billed for water and electricity after more than two years of free power and running water.
Civil servants to return
The decision to start restoring government services in the rebel zone has followed the signature of a new peace deal between President Laurent Gbagbo and the rebel New Forces movement in Pretoria on 6 April.
But the momentum generated by the deal is slowing down, and disarmament now looks unlikely to start as planned on 27 June, so South African President Thabo Mbeki, the official mediator in the conflict, has invited the main political factions in Cote d'Ivoire to a fresh summit in Pretoria at the end of this month.
After most of the teachers fled south due to the war, the six million people living in the northern half of the country resorted to opening and running many schools themselves.
But now, some 17,000 civil servants and other state employees are to be redeployed in the north by the end of August, an aide to Prime Minister Seydou Diarra said during a visit to this rebel headquarters town early this month.
"Civil servants who fled the horrors of war will be redeployed within three months in their original area to take up their positions and resume work," Daniel Cheick Bamba, who is in charge of the redeployment, told journalists.
The government has offered bonuses of between 100,000 (US $200) and 500,000 CFA francs (US $1,000) to civil servants who take up jobs in rebel territory.
Several hundred teachers have already returned, according to Sekou Toure, who heads a non-government organisation called "Ecole Pour Tous" that has kept many schools open and running during the war, with help from volunteer teachers, international agencies and parents.
End-of-year school exams should have taken place in northern Cote d'Ivoire in June last year, when pupils in the government-controlled south were writing their papers at the end of the 2003/2004 academic year.
But exams in the rebel zone were put off until November and were then postponed indefinitely after the government air force launched a series of bombing raids on rebel positions.
A total of 63,985 pupils in northern Cote d'Ivoire have been waiting to sit their 2004 exams since then.
They have now been joined by a similar number of pupils in the year below them, who were unable to sit their 2005 exams this month although more than 104,000 children in the government-held south sat their end of year exams last week.
Medical services also to resume
Medical care has been more difficult to improvise than education in the rebel-held north, where many rural health clinics remain closed.
Since the departure of most of their doctors and nurses, the main hospitals in the northern cities of Bouake, Korhogo, Man and Danane have been kept going by the international medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres, with help from other agencies and NGOs.
Some medical staff have returned to the north however, although no figures were immediately available.
"I left Bouake for Yamoussoukro (in the south) when the crisis began on 19 September 2002 because I didn't know what would happen to Cote d'Ivoire," nurse Sebastien Able told IRIN. "But now that the situation is returning to normal and that our minister has urged us to return I have decided to resume my job."
"The crisis has devastated the health centre where I used to work, so for now I'm helping out at Bouake hospital," he said.
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