Flags fly at half-staff as country reels from latest attacks that killed 137 people in the southwest.
People in Niger are mourning 20 pre-school children – aged between three and five – trapped in the flames of a horrific fire at a school on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Niamey.
The young victims perished on Tuesday when the blaze tore through buildings made of wood and straw in the impoverished poor “Pays-Bas” neighbourhood that was built in a former clay quarry near Niamey airport.
On Wednesday, anguished parents and teachers gathered at the school. Wiping away tears with her veil, the school’s director Habiba Gaya said all of Niger was in “total mourning”.
“The little children, innocents, were really burned alive in this fire,” she told AFP news agency, explaining that while older children were able to make it out, those aged five and under were not.
“They were little so they weren’t able to run.”
‘Answering the call of death’
The inferno spread so quickly that one mourning father, who identified himself only by his first name, Abdoulaye, said it had already destroyed the classrooms by the time firefighters arrived at the scene.
“Rescuers set off rapidly and the fire was put out… but the intensity of the fire was enormous,” fire service commander Sidi Mohamed said on public television on Tuesday.
Only the remains of desks and corrugated metal sheets were still visible among the debris, with charred books, pencil cases and backpacks scattered among the ashes.
“The flames were carried from classroom to classroom by the wind,” said Balaraba Ibrahim who lives nearby.
Her five-year-old niece Yasmina was among the victims.
“She had come home and then she went back to school. It’s almost as if she was answering the call of death,” Ibrahim said, breaking down.
‘Stop classes in straw huts’
The cause of the fire was under investigation and it was not immediately known where it started. However, teachers and parents said on Wednesday the deaths highlight the dangers of temporary classrooms set up outside.
In Niger, which ranks as the poorest country in the world under the United Nations’ 189-nation Human Development Index, straw huts are often used to make room for students in overcrowded schools.
“It is important that from here the authorities stop the classes in straw huts,” the National Union of Teachers of Niger said in a statement.
Gaya, the school director, echoed the call, while Ibrahim, the aunt of one of the victims, added: “There are plenty of empty lots the state could give us to build schools.”
Security forces have blocked off the scene while investigators searched for evidence.
Behind police tape, local residents gathered in anguish to look over what was left of the school buildings, some with their head in their hands.
“This is the worst thing that has ever happened at a Nigerien school – 20 children burned alive in no time. It’s a huge loss for Niger,” lamented local resident Amadou Seyni.
The mother of another victim, seated in the courtyard near other more solidly built classrooms that escaped damage, struggled to accept her loss.
“Allah wanted this to happen and there is nothing we can do about it,” she said, clutching prayer beads.