5/27/09

Swat Catastrophe - Children Are Silent Victims

. 5/27/09

Ibrahim, 13, is one of nearly 200,000 students forced to stay home since last year after their schools in the restive valley of Swat were destroyed either by Taliban militants or security forces.

"I have been sitting at home for over a year as my school has been badly damaged by the shelling," the seven grader told.

"We have already lost one year. We are already legging behind and any further delays (in opening schools) will ruin our future."

Pitched battles have been continuing between Pakistan army and pro-Taliban militants in Swat, which till a few years ago was one of the most-visited tourist sites in northern Pakistan.

Ibrahim lives in Kabal town of Swat, one of the most affected areas where almost all schools have either been damaged or turned into military camps.

"Militants are burning our schools while scores of school buildings have been captured by military troops and turned into camps."

A local journalist confirms that several schools have been turned into military camps.

"When the area elders asked them (military officials) to vacate the buildings, they said they have no other place to settle their troops," he said, requesting anonymity for personal safety.

He notes that a police station has been set up inside a school in Kabal, holding both militants and security forces responsible for ruining the educational future of local students.

"Armed troops are engaged in detonating militants’ houses and in retaliation they are burning the schools," said the reporter.

"Militants say they are burning schools in retaliation because they (school buildings) are government property."

Students and their families have been appealing to local authorities to find a solution for the problem.

"We recently held a protest demonstration for opening our schools," recalled Ibrahim.

"Hundreds of students belonging to different areas joined the demonstration because we all are worried about our educational future and don’t want to join militants’ ranks."

Over 700,000 students, males and females, are enrolled in the total of 525 schools in the four districts of Swat valley.

More than 200 of these schools remain closed.

Abid Hassan Khan, a local teacher, has moved with his family to Peshawar, the capital of the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), which borders war-stricken Afghanistan.

"I want my children to study. They had no future there. That’s why I decided to shift," he told IOL.

"At least, my children can go to school here," said Abid, who is currently teaching math at a local private school.

Ibrahim, the seven grader, fears the closure of schools may throw the area's youths in the lap of militants.

"Hundreds of thousands of students have been sitting idle for over a year. They have nothing to do," he laments.

Pakistan is facing a major humanitarian crisis, with some 2,ooo,ooo people having fled the war zone in the Swat Valley. They are moving to other regions in the country, where makeshift refugee camps are quickly being put up by the authorities and aid organizations.

Hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians (including women and children) have been killed and more than a million have become refugees due to the continuous unrest and uncertainty in the area.

Due to the continuation of the military conflict, the incredible doubling in the number of refugees, and the shortage of essential supplies for the refugees; aid workers warned against a worsening humanitarian crisis.

"This frustration may throw them into the hands of militants."





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