CAMP ZAFAYE, Chad – In Chad, children in a camp for Muslim refugees who fled sectarian violence in neighboring Central African Republic learn the Quran the hard way.
About 30 young girls and boys, sitting on chairs on separate sides of the makeshift classroom, loudly recite verses of the Quran. The teacher, in his late teens, walks among the pupils, holding a leather whip by its wooden handle. The girls all wear head scarves.
A pupil who doesn't recite the holy words loud enough is punished by a lash. A mistake is punished by a lash. A moment of inattention gets a lash.
The devout parents send their children to the madrassa despite the corporal punishment. The madrassa, shaded from the blistering sun by the wall of a building and a concrete roof, is unofficial. A regular school under a white tarp has formally been set up elsewhere in the camp.
As an Associated Press journalist visited the madrassa on Wednesday, a small boy, sitting on the ground with others and too young to speak, was hit in the eye by a lash meant for an older girl. As he started crying and the loud singing continued, the teacher tenderly put his hand on the youngster's face.
Officials from UNICEF, which maintains a presence in the large camp, said they didn't know that the madrassa existed and would look into it.
Over a year ago, these refugees fled Central African Republic amid killings by anti-Balaka Christian militias. Chad is also hosting thousands of Nigerians who have fled attacks by Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic group in northeast Nigeria.
More than 5,000 Muslims of Chadian descent remain in this refugee camp that was built on the site of an unfinished resort complex near N'Djamena, Chad's capital.
Many of them, especially the younger people, are growing impatient. Most came via an air bridge that was established between Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, and N'Djamena. Some, like 40-year-old Amin Idris, traveled in trucks that often came under attack along the way.
"I am a marketing director of an import-export business in Bangui," Idris said. "We have been here for over a year now. I cannot go back until the situation in Bangui is safe."
The fact that their ancestors came from Chad provides little comfort to many of the refugees here.
"I am a civil engineer," said camp resident Oumarou Hussen. "My grandfather was born in Chad, but I do not have any family here. We are all from Bangui. How much longer can we stay here?"
It might be a while before it is safe to return. Many Muslims have been trapped in isolated communities across the impoverished country, threatened by the Christian fighters.
Central African Republic, a country of about 4.6 million, was plunged into sectarian conflict amid the violent rule of a Muslim rebel coalition that was forced from power by the Christian anti-Balaka fighters. Both sides committed human rights abuses.
A transitional government is to organize elections this year, but instability threatens that goal.