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Pakistani schools targeted by militants

By Michele Langevine Leiby,

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Militant bombings of schools in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan have left the education system in that region a shambles and the government perplexed about how to respond.

In recent years, nearly 460 schools have been damaged or destroyed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border, according to the latest figures compiled by education officials. Many more schools have been hit in the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The government cannot afford to rebuild the schools, officials say. Meanwhile, the bombings persist.

Najeeb Ullah, 17, attends a school outside Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that has been targeted twice — once by a suicide bomber three years ago, when it was being used by paramilitary forces fighting insurgents, and more recently while he was taking an exam. He has traumatic recollections of that blast.

“I was scared, as well as other students in the examination hall, and I feel fear even recalling that in school,” the 11th-grader said. No one was killed.

Experts are alarmed at the school bombings, especially because the adult literacy rate in Pakistan is 55 percent, according to a U.N. Human Development Report last year.

In Pakistan, the right to free education between the ages of 5 and 16 is guaranteed by the constitution. But the disconnect between that goal and the reality is apparent in places such as Mohmand agency, a district in which 89 schools have been bombed. Of those, 14 are being rebuilt by the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to a local official. The Pakistani army and other authorities are rebuilding 10 others.

“It will take years to recover,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bombings have continued despite military operations that have been launched in all seven of the tribal districts. Meanwhile, Pakistani politicians appear uninterested in or unable to address the educational crisis in the northwest, assigning a low priority to illiteracy and relying on nongovernmental organizations to step in.

“Schools have had to bear the brunt of both man-made and natural disasters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, unfortunately, because of bombings and because of floods,” said Khadim Hussain of Baacha Khan Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on socioeconomic development.

More than 1,600 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been damaged or destroyed as the result of militant activities and flooding, according to provincial officials, but a breakdown of those figures was not available.

Hundreds of schools, most of them for girls, have not been rebuilt. So classes convene under tents provided by UNICEF. “And of course, a few dozen schools are studying and reading under shade of trees,” Hussain said, “and I refer to Shakespeare — ‘Under the Greenwood Tree.’ ”

Even if there were money to rebuild all the destroyed schools, the root problem would remain: Islamic extremists want to eradicate any form of secular education provided by the state and not adhering to fundamentalist beliefs.

“The militant discourse is based on homogenization and not the needs of the people,” Hussain said. “The militant discourse despises everything that represents modern and secular and democratic forces.

“This is the challenge for intelligentsia: to enforce a discourse based on human dignity and pluralism,” he added. “This is the biggest challenge, not the challenge of infrastructure.”

Correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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