Pushed into oblivion

Published October 15, 2011

There is hardly anything more excruciating than glorifying war in the face of atrocities. In Pakistan, the news coverage from Swat valley remained dominated by figures, numbers of soldiers killed while successfully targeting scores of militants, while the eyewitness accounts from the streets of Mingora remained scarce.

The daily morning sightings from one of Swat’s busiest squares ‘Grain Chowk’, renamed to ‘Khooni Chowk’ or ‘bloody square’ remained largely untold, bodies hung from poles and trees; usually headless. Often the shopkeepers would find letters claiming the bodies were left as reminders for the enemy. Then there were bodies scattered on footpaths, with throats slit and left to bleed. The threats kept getting stronger, schools were given a deadline to shut down, women were threatened to remain indoors and people feared for their lives as news of a military operation loomed.

In October 2007, when the Pakistan Army launched an operation against the Taliban led forces for control over Swat, over 500,000 people were displaced. According to the official statement, over 1200 people were killed as a result of the operation, while thousands were forced to flee, a significant part of Swat was left devastated. As a result, 404 schools were destroyed, either completely flattened or damaged, during the offensive; with the majority being schools for girl.

Zubair Torwali, who heads Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), Institute for Education and Development, Swat, was able to raise the plight of the people and mobilize people to help, but have little hope for the future. “The mainstream media only glorifies the war and it’s victories. We never hear about the plight and suffering of the people,” he said.

Zubair wrote a heart wrenching eyewitness account from Mingora, demanding the civil society to mobilise for help. “It was my attempt to call for help, and the civil society in Islamabad helped tremendously. But how much can the civil society do? We live in a security state where education can never be a priority. All the police check-posts that were destroyed have been rebuilt; there is a huge cadet college that is being constructed. But the civilian government is yet to prioritise the reconstruction of Swat’s destroyed schools.”

While some of the partially destroyed schools were rebuilt, those that were completely destroyed still await attention. A fact-finding report by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) published in July last year, found that most schools functioned in make-shift tents. Around 202 of the 226 partially damaged schools were repaired and only six of the 175 destroyed schools reconstructed. This was done with the help of the army, by funds being provided by the district governments.

Education District Officer (EDO) Swat is uncertain about the completion date of reconstruction of the 117 schools that are being undertaken by the Provincial reconstruction, rehabilitation and settlement authority (PaRRSA).

“Only 12 schools have been reconstructed so far, there are a lot of complications with PaRRSA’s way of working. I can’t be certain about the time it will take for PaRRSA to rebuild these schools. I am more hopeful about the schools being reconstructed under the army,” he said, while adding that PaRRSA was following stringent and time consuming procedures for reconstruction of schools under it’s responsibility. 

The delays seem to be caused by the monitoring criteria set up by the donor agency, USAID, from which PaRRSA received $25 million dollars in funding. One of the criteria set by USAID is soil testing of the land for reconstruction. A government official who spoke on the basis of anonymity said that strict monitoring criteria by the USAID together with the plethora of departments it has set up were the reason behind the delay.

“It is apparent that they do not trust us with their money, as if we are thieves, with a criteria so strict and a margin so low what contractor would work with them?”

While organisations under control of the government seem to be struggling to play their role in rehabilitating schools, social activists have taken up the arduous task. Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP) along with Department of International development (DFID) has been able to rebuild 40 schools; these pre-fabricated schools are furnished and have proper toilets, electricity and water connections unlike other makeshift schools that are forced to operate in tents.

Ehsan-ullah, member Board of Directors SRSP, believes that even though the pre-fabricated schools last for around 10 years, these schools would easily survive for over 30 years owing to the strict construction requirements by DFID. “Our experience of rebuilding schools destroyed in the Kashmir earthquake played a vital role in designing and rebuilding of schools in Swat. In my opinion, human rights organisations have been far more successful in helping people than government-run organisations,” he remarked.

But is rebuilding of schools the only dilemma? Zia-uddin Yusufzai, an educator, believes that the rehabilitation of Swat’s education system goes far beyond the rebuilding of schools. He remembers the time when Maulana Fazulallah’s radio sermons were aired, urging people to stop sending their girls to school.

“Even before they burned, torched and bombed schools they used radio to spread their propaganda. This started in 2003, and for four years he used his rhetoric to promote hate speech and propaganda calling for a ban on female education.”

He recalls an incident that happened in 2004, saying: “Over 200 girls in Government High School Charbagh, applied for school leaving certificates from the administration and tore them off in front of their classmates, in their minds they were convinced by the sermons from the Taliban. It was a gesture to convince other female students to drop out as well.

Everyday on the radio the Taliban would announce names of female students who had dropped out of school, congratulating them for defying western values and averting hell fire.”

Ziauddin said, while adding that defying the threats by the Taliban was only half the battles, for many are still fighting the deeply engraved rhetoric.

For seven years, the people of Swat valley have dealt with innumerable human right atrocities. Nearly every child has witnessed an act of violence; the sights and stories of war have left their mark on their fragile minds. It will take a long time and an astounding amount of dedication to help them hope for a better future in the war torn valley of Swat, they once called home.  The government and its institutions should prioritise the need for education in Swat before an entire generation is pushed into oblivion.   

Sana Saleem is a blogger at at Global Voices, Asian Correspondent, The Guardian and her personal blog Mystified Justice. She recently won the Best Activist Blogger award by CIO & Google at the Pakistan Blogger Awards. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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