Timergara, Dir, KPK: Over the years Ibrar Khan has fought hard for his teachers to operate unmolested, lobbied with textbook boards to keep curricula secular, filed away fatwas issued by radical maulvis against the alleged “fahashi activities encouraged” by NGOs, and overturned bans against the unfettered movement of female NGO officers.
He has painstakingly nurtured 30 schools across conflict-ridden parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and letters threatening to burn down or blast through his classrooms create only a momentary flutter in the spartan office his staff occupies in Timergara.
According to Khan, “It is rare that we bow to pressure and shut down. Almost every time the teachers had a warning to close schools, they chose to keep their schools open, especially if exams were near. We removed school signs and asked the children to wear regular clothes; we asked the teachers and children to arrive at staggered times, so that if anyone was watching, no one could tell that this was a school.”
It hasn’t always been easy to defy the Taliban. A ‘social mobiliser’ colleague, whose job it was to convince the community to enrol their children in school, was kidnapped and held for 30 days by the Taliban. A teacher took a bullet in the thigh when a Taliban convoy commandeered his NGO’s truck.
“We want these children to have a chance at a normal childhood and the same opportunities afforded to others. We have girls in our school who have no opportunity to interact; boys can go play cricket, meet in the market. For the girls this is it. School means growing their minds, maybe even a university degree,” says Khan.
Now a letter has arrived that has left Ibrar Khan nonplussed. The letter that has quickened his pulse isn’t a warning from the Taliban threatening violence, or a fatwa from a rabid imam.
It’s a dry set of instructions from the district commissioner’s office.
Khan explains the contents: “The government will shut our schools unless we can show that we have security surveillance cameras, guards and 12-foot walls at every school.”
Khan has been working the phones incessantly, gathering private and charity school representatives, hoping to come up with a cost-effective solution.
“I asked the authorities to visit our schools and see what they could do to ensure a safe opening, they said there was nothing they could do. I went to the concerned government office and said neither my office nor theirs has the type of security being demanded, so how can we expect small village schools to come up with that?” says Khan.
He continues, “The Taliban never managed to deflate us like this, even when they burned some of our schools. This feels like a real betrayal – the government should be helping us provide education and opportunity, but they contend they cannot even increase security in their own 28,000 government schools. We can’t shut schools and let children waste away at home.”As Khan packed a bag for Peshawar, a thousand miles away, in Karachi, survivors of the Peshawar school massacre and Hazara bus attack gathered in a solidarity exercise facilitated by the Citizens for Democracy (CFD).
From a massive backdrop, a digital montage of terror stared at the audience. Images of tortured bodies flashed across the screen, followed by those of preachers with flailing arms, fighters swathed in beards and turbans, their faces obscured and guns bared, of a blood-splattered Malala Yousufzai being rushed to hospital, and a voice-over of Shakil Jafri’s poem asking the apathetic, the unaffected or those who claim compassion fatigue: “Why worry brother, they haven’t come for you yet… your nephew still plays cricket in the streets, no one has dragged him through the streets tied to a car, your son is still safe, no one has hung him upside down, hunger hasn’t come for you yet…”
The point of the CFD event was to amplify the voices of the voiceless communities that are targeted by terror. Mehreen Kauser, who lost her mother and sister in a bus that was blown up because they are Hazara, smiled as Malala Yousufzai was beamed into the room via BBC studios in Birmingham. The Nobel Laureate listened as the survivors shared their experiences, drawing applause when she asserted that “we must all continue to raise our voices, and they will be louder than any weapon, pistol or Kalashnikov.”
Later at the CFD event, Mujtaba Hassan Bangash struggled to say a few words as he accepted an award on behalf of his brother, who took on a suicide bomber so that 400 of his fellow students could survive. He said he was pleased to see how keen the people of Karachi were to engage in a dialogue on terror.
He recounted his story: “My mother and I were at breakfast in our house on a hill that slopes down towards the school when we heard the blast and saw the smoke.
“She was convinced my brother Aitezaz was involved – and she was right. He was the one who intercepted the suicide bomber and blew him up before he got to do any real damage.”
Bangash’s left knee shook incessantly as he told the story of his brother’s bravery. “Three boys were late for school that morning,” he recalled. “Two of the boys saw a boy of their own age they didn’t recognise heading towards their school. They asked him what he was doing. He replied that he wanted admission to the school. They told him admissions were over, but he said he had special permission to apply.” The two boys glanced at the plastic bag dangling from the strangers’ hand, and saw the clear outline of a grenade and pistol. They also noticed the awkward fall of his kameez over the explosives they guessed were strapped to his chest. The boys quickened their pace towards the school, hoping to warn the watchman, when they saw the third tardy co-student, Aitezaz, walking towards them.
“Khudkush hai (he’s a suicide bomber)!” they shouted, pointing at the imposter. And 15-year-old Aitezaz didn’t hesitate. He dropped his bag, picked up a rock and ran at the youth. “Run. Get away,” he shouted over his shoulder, as he grappled with the bomber.
Moments later, the boys felt the shock waves of the blast.
Bangash said, “Aitezaz always said ‘If I ever get my hands on a suicide bomber I’ll teach him a lesson, I’ll do this, I’ll do that.’ He got his opportunity.” Tears began to pour unchecked off the contours of his cheeks as he continued: “I want to tell the world, ‘don’t give in to the terrorists. For my mother and father, every passing day at home is like the first day of the blast. Everyone cries and sobs – jaisay saans ukhar jaai ga” (as if their breath will be ripped from them), he said in short staccato bursts. But I am committed to fighting to keep schools open, to speaking out condemning terrorism. We are not afraid.”
A few months before the Peshawar school tragedy, I travelled to the north to train the women who commit everyday acts of courage by keeping their classrooms populated by students on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. On the journey to Timergara, despite the endless roadblocks and relentless questioning by army officers, my sleep-deprived mind was slowly numbed into relaxing. Even the snout of a machine gun at your window, the insistent tapping of metal against the glass loses its ability to unnerve. The sight of barbed wire, sand bags, army boots and camouflage clothing merged into a now-familiar jumble of images that were quickly swallowed up by the verdant greenery that scrambles over the sides of the hills of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
As the car rolled into the heavily barricaded street the locals call ‘Police Line,’ the driver gestured to the blue and red painted wall on the left, “There was a blast here, at the Police Line masjid, but blasts are normal here; that’s why we have three policemen outside the street, and two by the machine gun at the entrance of the street. There are also many more by the concrete blocks set up on the road. We can’t even protect our own police stations and government institutions, so people like you should be more careful. Heard about the blast at China Market?” he asked.
I was on assignment in Dir, training teachers and running trauma-mitigation workshops with children and communities caught in the crosshairs of conflict. I knew the pitfalls of pursuing work in war-affected areas.
“I’m just an educator, a trainer, not enough to excite any interest, why would they be concerned with what I do,” I said, even while my tongue and throat transformed into sandpaper, paranoia kicking in. What, I suddenly wondered, if the driver is somehow connected to the Taliban?
The driver continued, “You are exactly the kind of person they have a problem with, khayaal say kaam karyay ga (be careful when you go to work).”
Three days later, a car with three teachers and two children was blown up. One of our teachers said, “Their school is connected to a foreign NGO. The victims had been warned, a letter had arrived at their headquarters.” Clearly, they ignored the letter, and continued to do exactly what the rest of us in the education industry try to do in Pakistan: filling our classrooms with students and then asking them to dream a little further into their future. We heard several teachers had gone into hiding, others remained, determined to keep schools open.
“That is the risk we all take,” says Ibrar Khan. “There are too many extremists who want us all to remain uneducated like them. It particularly threatens them to see their women’s minds blossoming.”
Safia, who has served as school officer for six years, was confronted by the risks on her first day at work. She recounted, “The Taliban blew up a school on my first day at work. I had just taken a job as hygiene promoter for the NGO Acted in the first school I worked in, and following the explosion, the army shut down all the roads. We were twisting and turning along mountainous dirt roads, three hours or five, I lost track of time. We had to hide because terrorists were looking for teachers and NGO staff.”
When she got home, Safia says, she threw aside her chadar and bag and dissolved into tears. “I vowed never to work again.”
Her father had been watching the news, and the channel kept showing images of the remains of the ill-fated school. Safia said she felt the shock of her ordeal over and over again. “But my father didn’t tolerate my panic. He said to me, ‘this is the state of the area we live in, does this mean we should all stop working?’ He reminded me that I had a degree in social service and that I couldn’t let the terrorists win on my first day.” He said, ‘It might even get worse, but we have to continue, we have to keep going.’”
Safia took his words seriously. Six years later, she continues to stand unflinching in the face of fear.
Said she, “I am still here, working for the rights of girls. I am so grateful my father pushed me out again. I was ready to fall silent.”
Ibrar Khan is constantly wrestling with the fears of his staff: “Hiring and retaining school officers and teachers is a huge problem. It is hard enough for our women to fight the social pressure of neighbours and go into the streets and schools for work. Now we also have the threat of kidnapping by terrorists,” he says.
The school officers I trained in Dir are determined to continue working. It was heartening to see how enthusiastic they were about the new child-led participatory techniques I was there to train them in, but there was no guarantee their parents or husbands wouldn’t suddenly demand they stop working. Khan explains: “I can understand the fear. But we fight to keep our staff, we meet the parents, we explain the value of their daughters. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
On a morning where we had a particularly long drive into formerly Taliban territory, Hajra, a popular school officer I had first met at a training session I ran in documenting human rights challenges in Islamabad, was chirpy as she described how liberal her family was: “I am allowed to wear attractive colours and make-up. My father is educated; he supports my work; he is so proud that his daughter has been promoted to school officer. I don’t even have to wear the burqa often. I used to wear a dupatta, then a chadar, and now I have a coat – but that’s only because you never know when you might run into the Taliban. I am not forced to do anything.”
As she boasted of how enlightened her family was, I felt fortified, thinking we needed to find more girls like her.
En route we stopped to pick up Safia, who was helping us with a particularly challenging workshop. She got into the car, and as the car rolled over the gravel, Safia said, “So you’ve met Hajra, you should write her story… it’s interesting.” There was an inflection I hadn’t heard in Safia’s voice before: sarcasm? cynicism? I chose to ignore it.
But I was obviously missing something, and Safia filled in the gaps: “Hajra is leaving us because her brother-in-law doesn’t want her to work.’”
I was shocked. “Is this true Hajra?” I asked. I could hear the disbelief and disappointment in my own voice. I had been excited to deepen my relationship with her, to harvest her knowledge of the fierce Pakhtun communities and their issues. I was on a mission to train as many local teachers as possible to run the confidence-building workshops and trauma-mitigation sessions that I had developed, so that these brave women would build the capacity to fight ignorance in their own communities. I felt slightly betrayed to think that she would disappear into obscurity with all the experience she had amassed.
Hajra contended, “You’re wrong, Safia! You make him sound like a monster. My brother-in-law is very cool. He used to be very difficult. When my sister first married him he was rigid and religious. When he first saw us cousins dancing in a mixed group, he walked out of his own wedding celebrations. But now he loves to dance. There is a wedding coming up and you know what he wants to do?”
So I asked: “Tell me, what does he want to do?”
“He wants to hire a deejay; everyone is happy to see he has accepted music and dancing. He lets my sister work as a school teacher. But he says as a school officer I have to roam around too much. And all the neighbours see that it is an NGO car that picks me up, not a school bus. There are too many taboos concerning girls who roam around with NGOs. My brother-in-law doesn’t want that to be my reputation. He does so much for us, I want to please him.” Her voice trailed off. Thereafter, we drove in silence, mourning the untimely, unnecessary loss of another human rights worker, the only sound, the grinding of gravel under the wheels of the car.
As I looked out of the window, at an effulgent sky, streaked by feathery wisps of clouds, I had to accept that Hajra would not be one of the teachers that I would be training in the hope that she would replicate the workshops across the schools in her ‘domain’ or ‘cluster’ as they call it, training more teachers, scaling impact and inspiring students as she went along. She had seemed perfect to run the workshops we had devised. They are designed to be flexible enough to follow the needs of the students. It is the children who lead the discussions, altering the course of the workshops, scripting the plan and reflecting on their goals as they go through the steps, like a build-your-own-adventure story. There are role plays and role reversals.
You have to move around the room, chasing stories, unearthing facts, like a theatrical treasure hunt. A lot of the success of the workshops depends on the enthusiasm of the teachers or officers leading the session. The real point of running these workshops in a conflict zone is to give the children ‘a safe space’ to express their deepest, darkest fears, so their trauma doesn’t go unnoticed, or ignored. These children have been stripped of a normal childhood, and by structuring their workshops as games, we reclaim their right to play, enshrined by the UN. And while the students are engrossed in staging a play or explaining an art work about problems in their community, they acquire critical thinking and presentation skills by default.
Past Balambat bridge, across the rice fields and through the tangle of streets called Timergara market, we arrived at Warabanna village. In the midst of a confidence-building workshop, we helped the children create their own news broadcasting station, taking on the role of reporters, producers, writers and news anchors. As they generated ideas for content, they spoke of blasts, suicide bombings, school burnings and Taliban kidnappings.
A doe-eyed, eight-year-old girl with a ponytail that sat like a fountain on top of her head said, “I have a message for all the teachers who are scared now because three teachers were blown up yesterday in a car: himmat na haro, apna kaam kartay raho (have the courage of your convictions, and continue to work at your job).”
Safia ruffled her hair, muttering, “shahbash (bravo).”
Another child raised his hand saying, “But I am afraid they will blow up my school.”
Yet another child said, “Don’t worry, remember what to do. Ask who it is. Don’t let the khudkush in and he will blow himself up outside the school. Then we will be safe.”
An argument broke out among the older children about the different methodologies the Taliban use for their terror attacks. The bottom line: they arrive with guns and grenades, shoot anyone in their way, and then use grenades to clear their path before blowing themselves up. Chronic fear laced all their stories of recent events. Even their jokes revolved around violence and trauma.
Ibrar Khan helps me zip up my camera bags and fold the tripod. He shakes his head. “We need a lot more of these workshops. We need to allow the children to speak of these issues, and we also need comedy and laughter, lightness. These children are full of fear; fear of the Taliban, fear of the future. Our curriculum raises violent fighters to heroic status.”At a village near Zerbaig in a workshop we ran called ‘Citizenship and Democracy,’ the children wanted to raise issues like the shortage of water and electricity, or the need for a new road at a municipal level and at a national level.
One child said, “We are so poor, that in our village many men have gone abroad to send money home. We have no way to get our rights. Sometimes we hear people have disappeared and joined the Taliban. They say there is no other way to get our rights but to fight.”
“So what can we do if we have a problem?” I asked, at the end of the first session on democracy. A 14-year-old firebrand leapt up, “We can talk to our representative (numainda), because our vote matters, and if they want our vote they better fix our roads,” she said.
Forty hands came together to applaud her idea.
“That’s right, your vote is your voice. Good job,” I said. “But what if no one listens and nothing gets done? Do we get frustrated and fall silent?”
A resounding “No” was followed by a smattering of giggles. A teacher asked why they were laughing. The girls responded that they weren’t used to hearing the sound of their own raised voices. I was saddened to hear this. “Get used to it, it’s the strongest weapon we have in a functioning democracy,” I told them seriously, and was grateful to see their response.
“We can try a silent protest, like the photos you showed us. Block the roads. If industry suffers a loss, the politicians will pay attention – like Imran Khan’s dharna!” they chanted.
“You said we can write letters to the newspaper,” said a timid voice from between the folds of a dupatta caught between her teeth. “Write letters like the Taliban – except ours will be good letters.”
“Letters? They (the extremists) write letters and then burn the schools. We should write letters and for what? Nothing – the letters will have no effect,” another child replied.
“Actually, letters to the editor get published in newspapers and a lot of people read them. Imagine having your complaint or suggestion reach millions of people in one day…” I said.
The children tried framing letters, listing their complaints and proposing solutions to their concerns. Once they were satisfied with how articulate the letters sounded, they decided to practice raising their concerns in a real-world scenario.
They simulated a town hall, jirga-style meeting, where each group presented their issues and their proposed solutions. After the presentation, the students still had a question that was clearly eating at them: “And what about the uneducated people who come with weapons and sticks to shut down our schools?”
“Good question, so what have we learned? Will you fight them with violence?” I asked. I pushed to see if they became emotional, or whether they chose the rational path we had just discussed.
“No, we will reason with them; we will invite them to study with us,” said a child.
Next the children staged a skit, in which the teachers took on the role of the uneducated masses who feel threatened by those who choose to educate themselves. The teachers marched purposefully towards the gaggle of students who represented the school. “We will shut this school down. How dare you waste your time. You should be working in the fields. You think you’re better than us because you can make lines on paper!” they said. The latter protested – loudly at first, coming up with sudden slogans, like parhai hamara buniyaadi haq hai(education is our basic right), and then they adopted a more persuasive tack, offering adult literacy classes so uneducated elders wouldn’t feel inferior. The teachers/hoodlums began to relent. A smattering of applause, and we all broke out of our roles. The children fell back laughing, feeling the full force of their triumph. It was our turn to applaud.
A few days later we were working with a group from Daskor and another village community from Upper Dir. A mother of six asked, “Do you know what it is to be a woman, a mother here?” She started to tell a story about a boy who had to watch his grandmother die because he could not access the medical attention she needed. He also saw his father die with no hope of seeing a doctor, and then, even when his family found a charity to treat his grandfather, he was in too much pain to be transported over the rough terrain.
“For years the village was promised a road; charities came and talked about medical clinics. Nothing ever happened and this boy became so angry, one day he left. He kept talking about joining the Taliban, and now it’s been 10 years since he’s been gone. I miss him. I think of him every time I feel the wind, and I know someone is holding the curtain open; an open door makes me think he might walk in… but my son hasn’t written again, maybe due to shame, maybe he has been killed,” she said.
We asked the children what they thought we could do if we needed a hospital or a road. They started to create a community action plan. Workshop leaders and teachers worked with them in small groups to come up with strategies. The most convincing plan they put forward was a fund-raising drive where the village would come together to produce mirror-work embroidery (their existing skill), sell it to raise their own funds, train their youth on how to build a road and then give them the contract to make the road.
Ibrar Khan says, “We need to enforce the children’s right to play here if we want a well-adjusted group of youngsters to grow up. Right now, these children are obsessed with guns, bombs, the fear of anything that appears threatening. Things you and I wouldn’t think of as threatening become threats to them. A psychiatrist came here to conduct an experiment. We took a photo of a man carrying a tray with items to sell. We removed the items and it looked like the man was carrying a box, and most children thought it was a detonation device. Another set thought it was an actual bomb, being carried around casually. For girls the situation is especially dire. Before, parents had a hundred excuses not to send their children to school. Now with the Peshawar school massacre, they have a hundred and one.”
At another school nestled in the fold of a mountain, draped in lush greenery, the girls talked about vomiting when they saw tanks and heavy machinery. “But the army is better than the Taliban,” said one girl. “Before we didn’t have to wear these burqas. Now I dream that if I don’t wear it, the Taliban will come to burn me. And if I wear it, I see me and my classmates getting tangled in our burqas, falling among the rocks, bleeding, and the Taliban telling us to get up and keep walking even though we have broken our bones.”
The teachers confirmed that injuries caused by the extra long, awkwardly shaped burqa are common. “Still, when we got the letters saying even our younger girls had to wear burqas, we decided to comply. At least that means the girls can come to school,” one teacher told me.
School isn’t just a place to solve mathematical equations and learn how to formulate sentences. For girls it is the only place where they are not tormented by traditions that encroach on their right to a healthy childhood. It is the only place where they can speak to people they are not related to. According to a head teacher, “Interaction is watched carefully here. In the Northern Areas, you don’t just make friends by the riverside. Boys also have a difficult life here because of the brainwashing and recruiting practices by extremists, but they are free to choose their friends. For girls, school is the only safe space they have.”
Unfortunately, that haven is often short-lived: there is always the threat of an early marriage that will tear them from the cocoon of their classrooms. “Some of our brightest girls have suddenly announced, ‘We cannot come to school tomorrow because we are getting married. Here’s the invitation,’” said a teacher. “We try to talk to their parents, but they say their daughters will be shamed if they renege on their promise to the community. Some parents are beginning to recognise that what they call tradition is tantamount to cruelty for the girls; some mothers even cry. But mothers have limited negotiating and zero decision-making powers. We need to change this. Meanwhile, us teachers must watch in silence while this life sentence is handed to our brilliant scholars,” she continued.
At another school in a valley where ominous dark rock pinnacles plummet steeply into ravines before they flatten into green fields of wild grass, we trained the youth to articulate their greatest challenge. The children and teachers were sitting in what we call “sharing circles.” One group began with a child posing as a father declaring his daughter could not go to school because NGO schools are always being blown up. Right after his rant, he handed his phone to his ‘daughter’ and asked her to dial a number for him. At this point, his ‘wife’ interjected, saying, “Aren’t you ashamed you’re uneducated? Your daughter could dial that number for you because she goes to school and you want to take that away from her?” The children cheered as the ‘father’ realised the injustice he was about to perpetrate and allowed his ‘daughter’ to re-enlist in school.
A teacher posing as a terrorist bellowed: “Who wants to go to heaven? Who wants to help me blow up one of these NGO schools with which they corrupt our daughters?”
Their faces swaddled in multiple layers of cloth that snaked its way over their heads into turbans and then down over their backs into make-shift bags for explosives, the ‘terrorists’ kept talking: “I think we should target these charity schools, always talking about educating our girls. Enough! If we blow up one school, they will be scared to step out of their homes again for life. If we kill a few dozen of them, hundreds will hide away.”
The conversation continued, peppered by a lot of hand-clapping and shrill cries laced with extremist fervour.
Safia shrugged half apologetically: “They choose the Taliban as the theme again and again in this school too…”
I nodded, a half smile acknowledging the complicity between us. The repetition of the words ‘Taliban, extremist, suicide bomber’ has taken the sinister edge off the proceedings. In the teachers’ rendition of events, the Taliban were blustering, ignorant and incompetent. I thought about turning off the camera, and erasing the footage, but the hall had taken on a festive mood.
The children laughed as the headmistress tied a chalk duster to a teacher’s head scarf, and it made a ‘boom’ sound as it hit the blackboard. The children fell back pretending to be injured and the ‘police’ rushed to the scene.
The ‘injured’ girls proclaimed that no terrorist would take away their right to study. They punched the air with fervent fists as they were carried away by the ‘paramedics.’ “We will not be shut down!
“We will not be silenced, we will continue to study and serve our country.”
The question is, will their country, their leaders serve them?
Against the backdrop of monumental government indifference, and a high-voltage threat perception, it is imperative that the government rethinks its decision to abdicate responsibility by refusing to guarantee the safety of students.
To shut schools because they cannot afford guards, security cameras and massive walls would mean denying these girls a space to articulate their fears, hopes and dreams. The government must not deprive a generation of girls of the skills they need to function in a society that is already fraying at the seams. These schools are their only hope of relief from a life sentence of household drudgery and sexual slavery imposed on them by the same government that doesn’t have the courage to outlaw child marriage, nor the will to spend its budget on building and protecting educational institutions.
Even if small schools could somehow raise the funds to build fortresses with moats around them, the result would be counter-productive. In a rural environment, no wall stands more than a few feet high. By insisting on erecting a 12-foot boundary wall, the government would in effect be painting a target on the school. What is the point of removing nameboards, getting children to come to school in plainclothes and staggering teachers arrival times to turn a school invisible, when a boundary wall will proclaim the school’s location for miles for any terrorist to see?
At the CFD meeting Mujtaba Hasan Bangash asked, “What are we willing to do to protect our students?”
The Citizens for Democracy made the same point as they celebrated the courage of those who confronted terrorists in the name of protecting the innocent: “Let’s hang together, or we will all be hanged separately.”
Article & Phography: Fatima Najm