UAE re­builds schools de­stroyed by Tal­iban

Im­ran Mukhtar re­ports from Pak­istan on a re­mark­able ini­tia­tive to give thou­sands of chil­dren an ed­u­ca­tion

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

Aamir Saeed for The Na­tional

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

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