In the early hours of August 4, 13 schools — at least half of which are girls-only schools — were torched in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Diamer region.
"It must've been around 1:00 am when we started hearing loud blasts,” says 25-year old Ibadullah Shah, a reporter for a private TV channel in Tangir Valley. “This continued for a good 15 to 20 minutes, after which the area became quiet.”
Tangir, Darel, and Chilas are the three sub-divisions of Diamer district in G-B, where 15 schools were vandalised by unidentified people in the last week.
“A wave of fear swept through my area,” Shah adds. “When I called up the police station, I was told to stay indoors and also to inform people in my neighbourhood not to come out."
Though Shah remained inside his home with his family, several men from his area reached the Army Public School, one of the three schools in his area that were attacked, and saved it from being destroyed.
"The caretaker of the APS had scared the miscreants away by firing at them after he heard them breaking the glass," said Shah, adding the man had the presence of mind to call up the police for backup. They arrived in no time, after which the arsonists left, he said.
According to Shah, it took over two dozen men nearly three hours to extinguish the fire from that school. But the other two girls' schools could not be saved. One of them, Girls Primary School, Galee Bala, was where his six-year old-daughter Saadia is a Class 3 student. He has expectations from his daughter, whom he hopes will one day become a doctor, as there is no female health practitioner in the entire valley.
The morning following the attack, Shah went scouting to see the damage first-hand. "I went to eight schools and it was tragic how ruthlessly these centres of learning had been blown away or torched." He said he even saw charred remains of pages from the Holy Quran.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it's not the first time that militants have bombed schools.
'Girls who make their own decisions are a threat'
A 2017 report on school attacks in Pakistan by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited figures from Global Terrorism Database, stating that 867 educational institutions were attacked in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 deaths and 724 injuries.
"Other schools have been threatened and targeted simply for educating girls. Militants also view schools as symbols of the Pakistani state. Some groups say they attack schools because they are used as bases by the security forces," said the 2017 report on school attacks.
According to HRW, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and several other militant groups across the country attack schools, teachers, and students for having “too secular” or Western curricula.
The same was expressed by Zohra Yusuf, council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan:
"Education — particularly for girls — is an enemy for extremists because open minds will not accept their doctrine of hate and intolerance - or of subservience (in the case of girls)."
But it's not just the militants that are against female education.
According to Malik Miskeen, former speaker of the G-B assembly: "You know women are barred from voting in many parts of Diamer. If girls get educated it will open up their minds, they will think and decide what is good for them; and if that happens the tribal men know will not be able to keep a control over them," he told Dawn.com.
According to Shahabuddin Ghauri, a reporter working for state-owned Pakistan Television, in Chilas, the torching of schools was well synchronized as all the thirteen schools are at a distance but were attacked simultaneously "within minutes". He sees the attack as intimidation and will be a setback to girls' education in an already underdeveloped part of Pakistan.
Diamer ranks miserably low in education
The Diamer district with a population of 150,000, is bound by Astore district in the east, by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's Kohistan district in the southwest, Neelum district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the south, the G-B's Ghizer district in the north and northwest, and Gilgit in the north and northeast.
But unlike some of the other districts of G-B like Gilgit, Diamer not only ranks lowest in G-B but is among the lowest 10 districts across Pakistan on all the four indices of education, ccording to Baela Raza Jamil, who heads Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi.
Even when children go to schools, the standard of teaching in the district is so poor, stated non-profit Alif Ailaan, that:
According to a fact-sheet compiled by Alif Ailaan on Diamer:
Terming it "criminal neglect", Jamil said nearly 34% of girls aged between 5 and 16 years old in Diamer are out of schools. And out of the 19% non-state private schools, 12.1% are madressas — the highest figure in Pakistan.
She blamed the neglect of education, especially of girls, to a weak governance of that district.
The episode has also been met with strong condemnation from all political leaders. "This is unacceptable (and) we will ensure security for schools as we are committed to focusing on education," tweeted prime minister-in-waiting, Imran Khan, whose party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, won a majority vote in the general election and will soon be forming the government.
Already 25 million children in Pakistan are out of school.
But Jamil, who also head the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), said: "We do not need statements but action to end violence against children, youth (girls and boys) and education in Pakistan."
Talk of a ‘foreign hand’
Journalist Shahbuddin Ghauri says the administration wants locals to cooperate with them in apprehending the culprits. "The tribals have agreed but say they need foolproof evidence that the miscreants are locals before they agree," he said, adding that many locals suspect a "foreign hand" in creating instability in the region and were misguiding the locals.
Dismissing this, renowned educationist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy said Pakistan continues to sit on a "volcano of proud ignorance and religious fanaticism".
"Shall we once again blame foreign agents and RAW for arson and deliberate destruction of schools in Gilgit-Baltistan?" he asks, pointing out that the latest episode brought home the reality that by not taking action, or perhaps even "aiding them [extremists] to achieve prominence through the political process", the future of this country was "severely harmed".
Azeemullah, the official district spokesperson, said the authorities were holding a jirga with the local community leaders to find a way out otherwise the state will have to resort to the "last option" which was to launch an operation which often leads to "collateral damage".
So far, said the district administration spokesperson, 54 suspects have been rounded up for questioning.
"Despite entrenched tribal values and a conservative mindset, the people have resented the attacks," he told Dawn.com.
He also acknowledged that the administration needs the tribes on board if it were to succeed in cleansing the area of the militants.
"Had it not been for the locals in Tangir, the APS would have been completely destroyed," said Miskeen and added: "The reason why the militants even carried out the attacks in the thick of the night when the schools were empty was they did not want to provoke the tribal people. They know very well if even one local is harmed or killed, he will be avenged by the latter in the decades to come."
Right now, said Miskeen, the militants are challenging the writ of the state.
He was concerned that if the authorities do not act quickly and assert themselves more forcefully they may end up with another "Swat-like situation" on their hand.
Along with attack on education itself, Miskeen feared it could well have repercussions on projects like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Diamer-Bhasha Dam.
Condemning the attack, Nobel Laureate Malala Yusafzai, who was nearly killed by the Taliban in 2012 for promoting girls’ education, tweeted: "We must rebuild these schools immediately, get the students back into their classrooms and show the world that every girl and boy has the right to learn."
The local administration has promised complete restoration before the children return to their respective schools on September 1 after their summer break ends.