Pakistan: Swat Valley violence shatters education hopes

SWAT, 21 October 2008 (IRIN) - "My dreams of becoming a doctor have been all but shattered," said Sara Khan, aged 18, at Swat Public School. Her college had been open twice a week - providing there was no curfew or bombing.

But now things have got worse: "The school administration says the situation in Swat is so dangerous that they cannot take the risk of calling in the students. So they have closed it indefinitely," said Sara.

Sara's younger sister has not been going to her Sangota Public School (a missionary school in Swat set up in 1965) for the past five months after threats from militants closed it down. A week ago it was burnt down by militants, along with the boys' school where her brother was studying.

"We saw the school being blown up right in front of our eyes," said Abu Junaid, Sara's father. "Even the security forces do nothing; they remain quiet bystanders," said Sara.

"Some Sri Lankan and Irish teachers left. Once there were no teachers, the school closed, and now that the school is no more, I don't know what will become of these kids," said a Junaid, a government officer, whose only wish is to provide a "good" education for his five children, including three daughters.

The district of Swat, about 150km northeast of Peshawar, with a population of 1.8 million and known for its idyllic valley, has seen intense fighting between the Pakistan army and anti-government militants over the past year.

Owing to the unrest, pupils feel they will not be able to complete their courses in time for them to sit the admission exams for professional colleges.

"I don't know how we will be able to compete with the rest of the students of the province [North West Frontier Province] when it comes to taking the entrance test for the medical colleges, when we have not been able to study," Sara said.

"Nobody seems to care"

"Nobody seems to care about the predicament we are in," she said. "Do you think President [Asif] Zardari would have let all this happen if his children were studying here?" she said.

Swat's educational institutions are either bedevilled by disruption due to unannounced curfews, shelling and bombing, or the schools have been targeted by militant arsonists. In the last two years over 100 schools, mostly girls' schools, have been torched, according to pakistani media sources.

"When the army came in, people welcomed them with open arms and put garlands around their necks. We thought of them as our saviours. But they have done absolutely nothing to bring peace," said Roshan Khan, a rights activist in Swat. "If they wanted they could bring back our peace in just two days and kick the miscreants out."

In the past year the Pakistani military has been fighting Islamist militant - some thought to be allied to or influenced by al-Qaeda - in rugged northwestern Pakistan in a bid to gain greater control over the area