UAE rebuilds schools destroyed by Taliban
Imran Mukhtar reports from Pakistan on a remarkable initiative to give thousands of children an education
Growing up, all Naeem Hakeem wanted was to study to become an electrical engineer.
But in 2008, his dream was shattered when the Pakistan Taliban blew up his school in the country’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The militants emerged as a dominant force in the mountainous Swat valley district, and had begun enforcing a strict version of Islam.
They banned any semblance of modern education for boys and girls.
A year later, Mr Hakeem and his family had no choice but to leave their home when the Pakistan military launched a counter-offensive.
The area became too dangerous to risk staying, with frequent firefights between combatants as well as numerous deadly roadside bombings.
“That was the most terrible moment of my life, seeing my school being burnt down in front of my eyes,” Mr Hakeem, now 21, told The National.
“I spent about two years in a makeshift tent, far away from my home town and missed my education too. Three years of my life were wasted.”
Mr Hakeem, now an undergraduate student in Swat’s capital Saidu Sharif, spoke of how – more than a decade later – his life was at last back on track.
He and his family were able to return to his rural home town of Matta in 2011, and he was able to resume his studies.
The reason for his change of fortune, he revealed, was largely down to a UAE decision to help fund the rebuilding of dozens of schools in Swat.
Through the UAE-Pakistan Assistance Programme, the Emirates has allocated $41.52 million (Dh152.5m) for the reconstruction of 60 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
More than 50 have been built, with an initial focus on two districts – Swat and South Waziristan. More than 30,000 pupils are now enrolled.
“The militants had blown up our school at night,” said Mohammad Alam, 48, a teacher at Government Boys High School Ahingaro Dherai – a school outside the town of Mingora that also became a target. “But you can’t imagine [how incredible it is] now seeing this beautiful two-storey building constructed with the financial assistance of the UAE.”
According to Unicef, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children, with an estimated 22.8 million between five and 16 years old not attending classes.
The 2018-2019 Pakistan Economic Survey found the country’s literacy rate for those 15 and above was 57 per cent.
Maldives tops the South Asia region at 98.6 per cent, followed by Sri Lanka at 91.2 per cent, Iran at 84.7 per cent and India at 69.3 per cent.
Because of the fighting in Swat since 2008, child literacy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province at 55 per cent is lower than the national average.
But that statistic is fast being improved, in part because of the intervention by international donors such as the UAE.
The Swat valley has 1,647 public schools, said Dr Jawad Iqbal, an education activist.
He said that between 2005 and 2009 – during the worst of the fighting – 273 schools were either partially or completely destroyed by militants.
Haji Zahid Khan, 63, an elder of the area, told The National how Mullah Fazlullah, once the head of the Swat Taliban and who later became leader of the Pakistani Taliban, argued against western education in the valley after 2006.
Fazlullah, killed in a US drone strike last year, warned parents not to send their children to school and asked young girls to observe purdah, the practice of female seclusion that includes the wearing of burqas.
He said that since the end of the fighting in about 2010, many pupils had returned to their studies, although some parents were reluctant to send their children to makeshift classrooms until they were rebuilt.
“I got admission in this school for its excellent environment for female students,” said Fatima Ali, a Grade 10 pupil. Her school, about six kilometres from Mingora, was set on fire and then demolished by the Pakistan Taliban.
“My parents couldn’t afford private schools’ fees, so I had to wait until reconstruction of this school in my area,” she said.
Now 1,300 pupils study at the new premises built by the UAE.
“The UAE is developing many humanitarian projects in Pakistan and our special focus is on improving education facilities for the youth,” said Hamad Al Zaabi, the UAE’s ambassador to Pakistan.
“These educational institutions are a gift to Pakistani students from the UAE people and the government.”
Clockwise from top, pupils write exams at a reconstructed government school in Ahingaro Dherai village; a classroom at the school; schoolchildren ride a van home in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province