‘Risking our lives’: Students in Gilgit, KP climb mountains, trek miles to attend online classes

21 Aug 2020

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Karishma Nadir and her friends work on their laptops, sitting atop a hill hoping to catch internet signals, in Booni, Chitral. — Photo by author
Karishma Nadir and her friends work on their laptops, sitting atop a hill hoping to catch internet signals, in Booni, Chitral. — Photo by author

For 22-year-old university student Saifullah Abbas Afridi, attending online classes is not as simple as sitting in front of a laptop and and logging in: Afridi has to climb a mountain and hunt for the perfect place for his devices to catch internet signals.

Several years ago, he used to go to the mountains to graze his herd of goats. Now, he climbs the steep incline clutching a notebook, a pen, his mobile phone and a pair of headphones.

Living in the remote Shagai area of district Khyber, Afridi is a student of political science at the University of Peshawar. Before the pandemic hit the country, he was living at the varsity's hostel.

But like many others, he had to return home in March once the government announced lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus, closing down down educational institutions and businesses.

After reviewing the situation, the government decided that online classes were the best bet and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) directed all varsities to conduct classes online.

“Initially we were happy with the decision,” Afridi says, adding that students were hoping that the government would also allow 4G and DSL services in tribal areas which had been suspended for many years.

But the reality was in stark contrast to their expectations.

“Universities began conducting online classes, but no one was thinking about how students from tribal areas and remote villages would attend them without internet access,” he says, adding that some students even staged protests in vain to urge the government to take notice.

Ultimately disappointed with the government and their representatives, Afridi and his friends decided to solve their internet woes on their own and, on the advice of a friend, climbed a small mountain.

"After almost two hours of trekking, we finally reached the peak of a small mountain where we were receiving internet signals." Now, it has become routine for Afridi and his friends to risk their lives to attend online classes.

"Many have lost their lives after slipping while grazing their goats," he says, adding that the daily exercise reminded them of the days they used to graze goats.

But even after undertaking this perilous journey, there are issues.

"Internet signals are weak and we have difficulty attending classes. Sometimes they [signals] completely disappear," he says. With inconsistent signals and hardly enough speed to browse, these students claim online classes are of no use to them.

"We can only appeal to the government to help us resolve the issues we are facing."

Mudasir Alam (R) and his friend work on a laptop sitting across a river in GB. — Photo by author
Mudasir Alam (R) and his friend work on a laptop sitting across a river in GB. — Photo by author

"I travel a distance of three kilometres from my home in Ghizer village just to catch internet signals," says Mudasir Alam, who hails from Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and is a public administration at the National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust) in Islamabad.

Speaking to Dawn.com, as he sat by a river with only his backpack and his laptop, Alam said he makes the journey daily on foot.

According to him, the internet booster is visible from the spot he has chosen and the internet speed is also better. "Every student in GB is facing the same issue. We are struggling to find internet access."

"Some climb mountains, some sit next to rivers under the sun. If I have a class at ten in the morning, I have to sit here without any shade," he says, adding that the government must act to address these issues being faced by students.

"Online classes have started according to HEC's criteria, but there is no relief for students living in remote and hilly areas," says Karishma Nadir, a university student who hails from Booni, a remote valley in Chitral.

Like Afridi, Nadir was also residing at her varsity's hostel before the pandemic forced her to return home.

"We are forced to study under extremely difficult circumstances," says Nadir, who completes an hour-long trek to a hill along with her friends to attend their online classes.

"We are putting our lives at risk for the sake of online classes. It is the responsibility of the government to provide students with internet access or to provide them with alternate arrangements," she says.

Rahila Naz, another university student from Chitral has similar complaints.

"Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all exams, classes and office work is being conducted online. But those living in remote areas such as Chitral, tribal districts and GB, especially students, are suffering," she laments.

"Even after climbing mountains and hills just to get signals, we face other issues such as problems joining sessions and running out of battery on our mobile phones and laptops.

"It's not an easy task to make a two-hour trek up a mountain on a daily basis. We have been facing this torture for the past 40 days," Naz says, adding that this was taking a toll on the physical and psychological health of students.

"We don't want our studies to suffer. But is it our fault that we are from remote and less developed areas?" she questions.

"Are we not citizens of Pakistan? Is it our liability for wanting to study? Why is the government silent on this issue?"

These questions are echoing in the minds of every student, Naz says.

"We want the government to answer but, unfortunately, it is silent. The pandemic has opened our eyes to such issues in remote areas and we hope the government would take steps to address them."

Sahar Ibrahim, also a university student from GB, said her experience of attending online classes was "very discouraging" as she was hardly able to attend classes.

"My semester ended two weeks ago. I am still working on my assignments because I don't have internet at home," she says. For Ibrahim to submit her assignment, she has to travel to another village two hours away.

"It's affecting our education and grades," she says. According to her, those with internet access at their disposal are able to hand in better assignments.

For now, Ibrahim says she has been compelled to travel to Lahore to appear in her online examinations.