The Pakistani Taliban's War on Schoolchildren

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alexandre Meneghini / AP

A girl attends class in a school in Qutbal, Pakistan

Every morning, Sarim Zaidi, 17, puts on his school uniform, straightens his tie and hops into the car his parents provide for him to go to the Imperial International School and College in Islamabad, an upscale private institution. After his driver drops him off, he goes through metal detectors, winds his way around barbed wire, glances nervously at the armed guard on the roof and flashes his ID badge before finally entering a classroom.

Across town, in a poorer section of Islamabad, Hamza Baig, 14, also smartens up his school uniform, but at the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation Boys College, a government school, there are no armed guards. There is only a lonely doorman behind a flimsily padlocked gate. He is armed with a stick.

These are examples of how kids go to school in Pakistan nowadays, owing to a ferocious campaign of violence by the Pakistani Taliban against schools all over the country that has left parents panicking, students uneasy and educators worried about whether they're doing enough to protect kids in the middle of a war. Schools have been turned into fortresses, and some students have made attending class an act of defiance.

The numbers show the extent of the war on education by the Pakistani Taliban. At least 473 schools across Swat and Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been destroyed over the past two years. Militants recently blew up a 12-room state-run high school and health clinic for boys in Hangu district, a small area nestled on the border of North Waziristan and the North-West Frontier Province. And they routinely blow up girls' schools in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province. Three have been destroyed in the past two weeks.

The targeting of schools — especially girls' and co-educational institutions — had long been restricted to the tribal belt in the northwest of the country. But the government offensive against militants in South Waziristan has changed that. A double-suicide attack on the International Islamic University in Islamabad in October sent government officials and parents in cities into a frenzy. Across the country, schools were told to close and security measures quickly improvised. Up to 30 million public and private students from pre-kindergarten through high school were affected, according to the latest figures from the Pakistan Ministry of Education. Up to 220,000 institutions felt the impact. "We were just asked to shut down," says Huma Ali, who runs a private elementary school in Karachi. "We thought it was a precautionary measure. But as time went by, we found out there was a threat to the schools."

Private schools were told to raise their walls, install barbed wire, sandbags and closed-circuit TV cameras and hire armed guards. Some even went so far as to put snipers on their roofs. Schools like Ali's can afford such measures, she says. But government schools are out of luck. The federal government is doing little, critics say, to help pay for the extra security measures it says are necessary for schools to remain open.

The contrast is stark. At the government-run Islamabad Model College for Boys, an aged and unarmed doorman provides security. If someone hopped over the walls out of sight of the guard, no one would know. At the end of the school day, anxious fathers crowd around the gate, collect their children and scurry toward a traffic jam of cars choking the street. A suicide bomber would find it a tempting target.

The school has 1,500 students grades 1-12. If something happens, says Atiq ur-Rahman, a chemistry teacher, the school is ill equipped to protect its students. "We don't even have a security guard equipped with weapons," he says. He says he can't handle a dangerous situation and that the students and staff feel vulnerable. If a suicide bomber targeted the school, "we could only request him not to explode."

The Taliban's campaign against schools, however, seems quixotic. On the one hand, the militants are well known to oppose educating girls. On the other, attacking boys' schools seems to be further alienating the populace. Not that the government has been able to capitalize on this; its tight-fisted response to paying for school security — in essence, it doesn't — has angered parents and teachers alike. One judge on the influential Lahore High Court dismissed a petition from the Private School Owners Association for more government help by saying schools should arrange for their own security. "Everything should not be left to the government," said Justice Mian Saqib Nisar. "Every citizen should play his due role for the betterment of the society. I would impose a fine if such frivolous petitions were filed in the future." No one from the Ministry of Education was available to comment for this story.

Ur-Rahman, the chemistry teacher, has a list of ideas to beef up security, ranging from hiring more trained security guards to adding CCTV cameras, but he doesn't expect any of them to happen because the school can't pay for them and the government isn't willing to pick up the tab, he says. "It shouldn't put the [responsibility for] funding on the college for everything," he says.

The situation's impact on the kids has been noticeable. "We've heard people say, 'My daughter didn't want to go to school today. She had a bad dream — she thinks something bad is going to happen today,' " says Huma Ali in Karachi. "Kids ... as old as my younger daughter, who is 5½, now when they hear the word danger, they've been taught to drop everything, drop down into their knees and go into a duck position," says Sanam Thariani, who works with Ali. "I just think that's really sad that a 5-year-old has to know that."

Ruhab Zehra Zaidi, the 13-year-old sister of Sarim Zaidi, says she's very scared at the Islamabad Model College for Girls and finds it hard to study her favorite subject, math. "Anything can happen at any time," she says, her big eyes widening further. "This disturbs my studies very much." "I am upset about all this terrorism," says Hamza Baig with intensity. The teenager from the Overseas boys college wants to make sure his words are clear: "We feel very scared when going to school, thinking today may be our last." Like many students, Baig stayed home for weeks at a time after the attack on the International Islamic University.

Perhaps most poignant, the situation has affected how kids play. At Ali's school, the students are not allowed to play in the courtyard anymore because of fear that someone might toss a bomb over the wall. But staying home isn't an option. "I am ready to die for my country," says Sarim Zaidi, with a determination both uncommon and tragic for a 17-year-old who merely wants to go to school.