ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At Oxford Public Middle School, an enthusiastic group of students recite their lesson for the day, which involves learning how to count. Only here there are no desks, no chairs and even the teacher’s chair doesn’t have a cushion. Oxford Middle School is in North Waziristan, in the heart of Taliban country, and these fidgety youngsters — wearing baseball caps that sport their school logo — are learning to count in Urdu and Pashto.
In this wartime landscape, where hundreds of schools have been bombed, drones fly overhead and army-imposed curfews keep teachers out of the classrooms, the fact that school continues at all seems remarkable.
At least 400 students in grades 1 through 8 — including the children of Taliban fighters — attend the school in the off-limits tribal region of Pakistan. About six miles away is Miram Shah, a city considered a hub of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, including the Haqqani network.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the Taliban commander who controls the area that supplies students to Oxford school, has maintained an uneasy truce with the Pakistani army. But he supports the war against U.S.-backed NATO and Afghan forces across the border in Afghanistan.
All Taliban oppose coeducation, and girls lucky enough to receive any kind of formal instruction typically do so in private homes.
The Pakistani Taliban, as well as other insurgents, have bombed many schools, but some factions claim to do so because Pakistani troops seek refuge in the buildings. A military spokesman who was not authorized to give his name countered this claim on Oct. 26: “There is not even a single school under the occupation of the army in North Waziristan.”
At lease one CIA drone strike, reported in April, destroyed an abandoned school when it targeted the suspected extremists hiding there.
Masood Bangash, a senior government official for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, said schools throughout the tribal belt have been occupied by “various organizations” and used for non-educational purposes. He said he does not doubt that some in the Taliban ranks encourage education, but added that the long-running insurgency “won’t really permit” any educational system to properly function in the tribal belt.
“I would blame both the government and the Taliban for that,” Bangash said.
The omnipresent armed conflict has made it increasingly difficult for an entire generation of young people to get a basic education. Yet there are some success stories such as the Oxford Public Middle School, which was founded 22 years ago, and is, despite its name, a private school.
Monthly tuition fees range from little more than a dollar for first graders to $3.70 for eighth graders, according to principal Fazl Rahim. Orphans receive education for free while poor students attend at reduced rates.
There are seven teachers — all male — for 400 boys. Rahim said the parents of many of his students are loyal to Taliban commander Bahadur.
“Local Taliban are happy that their offspring are getting a modern education,” Rahim said.
When the precarious law-and-order situation caused schools — especially those in remote areas -- to close down for lack of teacher attendance, the local Taliban convened a committee to help ensure that they stayed open, the principal said.
“They direct the schoolteachers to attend the school and educate the locals,” he said, adding that the committee provides security for teachers.
There have been reports of Taliban enforcers who don’t hesitate to use intimidation to make sure teachers get to the schoolrooms.
The boys at Oxford fill its classrooms from Sunday through Thursday, sitting on mats worn through to the ground. Classes follow the same rhythm of the local religious schools, known as madrasas. They attend school in the morning for academics and then head to the madrasas in the evening.
Umar, a second grader at Oxford, bragged that he is not afraid of “banganas,” as drones are called locally. But, he added in afterthought, “When they start to hover sometimes at low height at night, then I feel scared.”
The remotely piloted aircraft are a key weapon in the U.S. war against extremism, introduced in Pakistan under President George W. Bush. The drone strikes have increased dramatically since President Obama took office.
Last week, a woman was reportedly killed in a strike in Mir Ali, another town not far from the school and a regular target of drone strikes. This month alone, attacks in the area have killed at least nine people, according to local officials.
Another Oxford schoolboy, first-grader Saeedullah, spoke of his plans for when he grows up. “I want to become a doctor to give medicine to the sick people and also give them injections,” he said.
Mehsud reported from Miram Shah, Pakistan.