Taliban attacks on schools in Pakistan
"We will never forget what happened"

On 16 December 2014, a group of Pakistan Taliban militants entered the auditorium and classrooms of the Army Public School in Peshawar and opened fire, killing over 140 people. The attack outraged the world and triggered a debate about the Taliban threat to schools in the country. Sadly, this school attack was no isolated incident: since 2007, more than 1,000 schools have been attacked or destroyed. By Kiran Nazish in Peshawar and Swat

About a month after the brutal Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar that killed over 140 people, most of whom were children, schools re-opened again in Pakistan on Monday, 12 January. When members of the Pakistan Taliban entered the school premises, many pupils were either sitting exams or taking part in an annual ceremony. The attack sent shockwaves of grief throughout the country and sparked a campaign of defiance as people gathered in different cities around Pakistan to protest against the Taliban.

On the day the school re-opened, parents and children chanted anti-Taliban slogans and swore to continue schooling despite the threats. A memorial has been put up right outside the school. Parents and children from Peshawar and elsewhere light candles and offer up prayers for those killed in the attack. "We will never forget what happened and we will not let the Taliban continue their brutality," said Sajida Hussain, mother of one of the children who was killed in the massacre. She came with relatives visiting from Lahore to pay their respects.

Eight-year-old Tasneem persuaded her six-year-old younger sister, Haleema, to return to school after the attack. Tasneem was full of excitement; her younger sister walked behind her. Both are determined to go to school again, but their mother, Naila Arif, says that her youngest daughter often wakes up at night, scared. "She starts crying when she suddenly hears noisy bus horns outside the window at home," she explains. Haleema remembers the sound of gunfire in the distance when one building at their school was attacked by militants last year. "But there has been a lot of support, and most parents are sending their children to school with new determination," she adds.

Soldiers on a road leading to the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, 12 January 2015 (photo: DW/F. Khan)
Security was tight in Peshawar on 12 January, the day when schools there re-opened for the first time since the deadly attack on the Army Public School. Pictured here: soldiers deployed on the roads leading to the Army Public School

Targeting innocent children

This attack on the Army Public School may have been the deadliest attack on a school in Pakistan, but it is certainly not the only one. Since the emergence of the Taliban in Pakistan, schools have been one of the first places to be targeted by both the Taliban and many of their splinter groups.

The Taliban's long war against schools in Pakistan began after 2006. Since then, the number of school fatalities has been rising, with the period between 2009 and 2012 being one of the most destructive. During this period, between 838 and 919 militant attacks on schools were recorded. The figures are so unclear because local sources say that due to the delicate situation in the tribal regions, complete data could not be gathered and the numbers are much higher than the records indicate. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that in 2009 alone, around 508 schools were either significantly damaged or completely destroyed. Most of them were in the north-west tribal regions of Pakistan.

On 9 October 2012, Malala Yusufzai, the world-renowned child education activist and Nobel laureate from Pakistan, was shot by the Taliban. Two of her school mates, Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, were also injured in the attack. Hers was just one incident of many in which pupils, schools and school teachers in Pakistan were targeted.

Malala survived; other children have not been so lucky. According to media reports at the time, at least 40 children were killed and around a hundred injured in attacks on schools and school buses since 2009.

Two young girls stand in front of the memorial at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan (photo: Kiran Nazish)
The two young girls standing in front of the memorial at the Army Public School in Peshawar were in the school at the time of the shooting. The younger of the two is in kindergarten. Her parents say she used to wake up at night terrified in the days after the attack

Swat: target of Taliban attacks

Although it is certainly not the only town in the northern tribal region to see such attacks, Swat, Malala's hometown, is among the hardest hit by the plague of Taliban terror against schools. In 2009, when the Taliban banned girls' schools under their rule, 900 schools were either forced to stop the enrolment of young girls or were shut down entirely.

According to the Coalition to Protect Education, an independent research organisation dedicated to gathering data on the subject worldwide, "some 120,000 girls and 8,000 female teachers stopped attending school in Swat district. Over the following months, the Pakistani military regained control of the area, but many schoolgirls and female teachers were too scared to return to school nearly a year after the military ousted the Taliban."

According to government records revealed for this report, there have been reports of more than 140 kidnappings from schools in which both pupils and staff have been taken by militants. Although there have been attempts by militant groups to kidnap about 300 school teachers and pupils in the tribal region of Pakistan, many of these attempts failed as those abducted either escaped or were rescued by the Pakistani military. At one point, these kinds of kidnappings helped fund the Taliban's militant operations and weapons purchases.

Schools have also been used as military bases by the Pakistan Army. Locals in the North West Frontier Province say that several dozen schools have been used by the military for this purpose. There have also been cases where Taliban or other militants have used schools to hide or regroup. In several incidents, police raids in empty and destroyed school buildings recovered weapons and ammunition. Most of these incidents occurred in the north-west tribal regions of Pakistan, which border Afghanistan.

Part of the memorial at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan (photo: Kiran Nazish)
Part of the memorial at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, which was targeted by Taliban militants in a gruesome and deadly attack that left over 140 dead. The vast majority of those killed were children. The Taliban said the attack was in retaliation for a government offensive in North Waziristan and the nearby Khyber area that began in June 2014

Make-shift private schools

According to information gathered by NGOs working on the ground, many schools in Swat have been used as military bases by the Pakistan Army for over a year at a time. As a result, around 10,000 students were unable to attend school.

In some cases, school teachers responded by opening up schools in their backyards. Most of them were later attacked by militants or right-wing activists who sympathise with the militants, specifically the Taliban, who portray Western education as anti-Islamic and inappropriate for good Muslims.

Mohtaram Khan taught in a secondary school in Mingora and set up a make-shift school on his veranda. "First they [Taliban supporters] came to my house and warned me. When I did not stop teaching in my sehan [veranda], where I continued to teach my class, they started throwing stones inside my house. Sometimes they stood outside my house and waited for someone entering or leaving the house, so they could throw stones at them."

Mr Khan says that his children were threatened when they played outside and he himself received death threats. "They called me things like 'Kafir', 'enemy of Pakistan', and 'Western agent' and said they would kill me and my family. I had to leave." Khan is one of the many teachers who escaped Swat and settled in Islamabad, where he continues to teach.

Kiran Nazish

© Qantara.de 2015

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