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RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Children Undeterred by Attacks, Want Education

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Apr 27 2010 (IPS) - "I don’t feel any fear. My parents do. They instruct me almost every day to stay away from crowded places," said Afaq Ali, a Grade 1 student in this capital city of the militancy-wracked Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.

School children dream of finishing their education despite bomb attacks. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

School children dream of finishing their education despite bomb attacks. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Undeterred by an explosion at the Police Public School on Apr. 19, he said no one could stop him from going to school. "Militants must be ashamed of targeting children," Ali said. The militant attack killed one student and wounded 10 others.

Not too far from the Police Public School is the University Public School (UPS), where most of the students remain optimistic that the Taliban forces could still be defeated through education.

"When we get education, we can spread the light and do away with the widespread ignorance in our society," declared Kashif Shah, a Grade 3 student at UPS.

In 2001 the Taliban came to the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) after they were forced to flee Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, by the U.S.- led forces. From there they began sneaking into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – which until recently was known as the North-West Frontier Province – and started targeting schools and commercial establishments such as CD and music shops.

FATA lies between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the neighbouring country of Afghanistan.

In Swat alone – an administrative district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – the Taliban destroyed a total of 188 girls’ schools and 97 boys between 2007 and March 2009, displacing some 500,000 students.

"Female education is against Islam. They (women and girls) are required to sit at home and not venture out," Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, now in jail, told IPS in March 2009, when asked why girls’ schools were a prime target of his militant group.

"We are not bothered by the blasts. Our main aim is to get education at any cost. Our parents want us to get more education and become doctors," said Imran Ali, whose brother Jawad Ali also sustained injuries in the explosion at the Police Public School early last week just before its closure.

In January a suicide attack near a girls’ school at Lower Dir, one of the 24 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killed seven people.

Jamal Shah, a fifth grader in a government primary school in Lakaro in Mohmand Agency, recalled a similar incident in his school, which was blown up by alleged militants on Apr. 14.

"When we woke up, we received the bad news that our school had been blown up by militants," he said. "I went that same day to see my school," he said, notwithstanding his parents’ advice not to leave the house.

Now 500 students are holding classes amid the rubble of the devastated school, "because everyone wants education," 13-year-old Shah said. He expressed fears that he and his schoolmates would end up as laborers if they were uneducated.

His 50-year-old father, Anwar Shah, a mason, said, "My greatest desire is to provide better education for my child so he could live his life with ease."

"My only concern is the safety of my three children. I bring them to [and pick them up from] school every day," said Attaulh Khan, unmindful of the two- kilometre bicycle ride to and from the school.

Sardar Hussain Babak, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education minister, has vowed to rebuild all the schools that have been destroyed by militants. "We will make every effort to educate the students," he said.

Such an undertaking is estimated to cost 220 million U.S. dollars.

During the past week, the Taliban insurgents have destroyed 16 schools in FATA, Babak said. "With less than 50 percent literacy rate for males and 37 percent for females, we have been urging the international community to help us in the rebuilding process," he added.

Police officer Safiullah Khan said authorities have beefed school security as a result of the spate of school bombings. "We keep close contact with school principals to avert any threat to the lives of the children," he told IPS.

He added that school administrators have deployed security guards in their buildings to keep an eye on suspicious-looking individuals coming in and out of the schools.

Still part of stepped up security measures in schools is sending students home in batches of two, at an interval of 15 minutes, said Bushra Ali of the University Model School (UMS). Otherwise, they tend to rush out of the school gate, he said.

Pervez Malik, who teaches at the Government Girls Primary School, said that the school was bombed on Mar. 13 by suspected terrorists. "The militants’ actions against innocent civilians have only served to deepen the students’ desire for education.

Twelve-year-old Gul Ghutai, a Grade 6 student at UMS who dreams of becoming a doctor "so she can serve her countrymen," said the Taliban have no right to kill. "Nobody except God has the authority to take human life," she said.

"We aren’t going to be browbeaten by their campaign against education and knowledge," said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain. "Our religion Islam tells us to seek education at any cost."

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