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The writing on the wall: Diamer's torched schools bear a chilling warning

Updated September 10, 2018

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An inscribed threat on the wall of one of the torched schools reflects the arsonists' extremist mindset — Photo by author
An inscribed threat on the wall of one of the torched schools reflects the arsonists' extremist mindset — Photo by author

The night was still young on August 4 when arsonists began torching schools in a planned, simultaneously executed series of attacks in Gilgit-Baltistan's Diamer district.

By dawn, 14 school, mostly girls-only, had been razed to the ground.

More than a month later, the flames have died, the ashes have disappeared in the wind, but the fear still survives.

Where there were classrooms brimming with students, there are now ashes. And where there was roof, there is now just a gaping hole. Rubble and wreckage have set in.

But none of that is the most chilling remnant of the arson spree. What haunts the locals the most is quite literally the writing on the wall.

"We will not rest until we've burned down all the girls schools."

That inscription, found on the blackened walls of two of the torched schools, reminds locals not only of what happened on that August night but also of what could happen again.

It's a statement of intent that reveals the mindset of extremist groups opposing education for girls.

The plague isn't exclusive to rural settings either. Torh valley, a relatively sprawling setting in an otherwise mountainous region, was perhaps the first one to have its girls schools burned.

According to the locals, it happened to two of their schools some eight years ago.

In the recent wave, Torh's Government Girls Primary School Seri fell victim.

Shamsul Haq, a local who resides near what remains of the school, remembers two things the most from that night: "loud crackling and intense heat".

“We saw the school on fire,” he says. “We, about 35 neighbours, gathered and attempted to bring the fire under control by dousing the school with water. After hectic efforts, the blaze was brought under control.”

One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author
One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author

Muhammad Jaffar, a teacher who volunteered at the NGO-built facility, is not uncertain on how he sees the arsonists.

"A terrorist group destroyed it," he said.

Maimona, a student at Huddor's GGPS Nursery — another one of the torched schools — doesn't know who to blame, but she's certain that the incident has not made her alter her career plans one bit.

"I don’t know who destroyed my school but I want to keep on studying,” she said. “I want to be an engineer."

Mansoor Ahmed, a local of influence, rides the same boat of thought. "Until the burnt schools are rehabilitated, we will shift students to a makeshift rooms for schooling," he said.

The effect, however, varies. A third-grader from the same school as Maimona is still in shock, both from the night's ordeal and the writing on the wall.

“By the end, only a window [of my school] was intact," Asia Bibi, who did not sleep that entire night, said. "The terrorists had thrown our books outside before setting the school on fire. It's scary. They wrote on our walls that they would return."

One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author
One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author

Faqirullah, Diamer's Deputy Director Education, explained that there is a strong anti-girl education network active in the region for at least a decade, which has conducted attacks in 2006, 2008, 2010 and now in 2018.

"A majority of these schools were built by an NGO with the financial support of USAID," he added.

The latest wave, Faqirullah claims, has affected 4,500 school-going girls in the district. "These arson attacks have created so much uncertainty in the region that we fear girls may be dropping out," he said.

Shabbir Ahmed Qureshi, president of Diamer Youth Movement (DYM), associates the rising extremism wave with training camps created in Tangir for 'jihad' within Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“The problem with military operations in places like Swat and Waziristan is that these places will become even more backward than before,” he said as Mubashir Arbk, another DYM member, questioned: "Why are they allowed to operate openly?"

One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author
One of the schools burned down in August 4 arson attack — Photo by author

The main suspects, according to locals, are a trio named Khalil, Shafiqur Rehman and Abdulullah — all of whom were reportedly trained in Afghanistan and are wanted by security forces.

Malik Misken, who heads a jirga that handed over 18 facilitators of the arsonists, urges security forces to include locals in their search for Rehman and company, as without local support the absconders would flee up the mountains.

“We assured to the Army, FC and police that we will support them in actions against the terrorists but on the condition that they will not degrade any innocent citizen," he said.

The forces, meanwhile, have beefed up security from Bisham to Gilgit Baltistan on the Karakoram Highway, and set up special checkposts at entry and exist points of Darail and Tangir tehsils.

The personnel, checkposts, pickets and vigilance may help in nabbing the Diamer school arsonists: but will they also help contain an extremist mindset which, after festering for years, has now mutated into a desperate campaign to deprive an entire sex of their right to education?