Sunday, September 21, 2008

Devastation and hope: School promises brighter future for girls in Kashmir

Kalsoom,11, from left,Amina,6,Omama,6, and Nayira,10,lost friends and relatives in the 2005 earthquake, and are eager to resume their education in a building that won't collapse.

By KARIN RONNOW of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle published Sunday September 21, 2008

AZAD KASHMIR On an October morning in the Himalayan mountain villages along the India-Pakistan border, it was business as usual. The first call to prayer at the Islamic mosques had passed, and the Ramadan day of fasting had begun. Children were in school, shops were open for business and the women were settling into their routines.

Suddenly, at 8:50 a.m. Oct. 8, 2005, the earth shook violently. A powerful 7.6-magnitude earthquake centered outside Muzafarrabad, the capital of a war-torn and impoverished Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, transformed the 30,000-square-mile region into a disaster zone.

Entire villages in the narrow river gorges north of the capital were "finished." as the locals say, wiped off the mountains.

Schools, businesses and homes many ramshackle to begin with collapsed or were crushed in landslides. Roads were demolished or filled with rubble from landslides, blocking rescuers and desperately needed aid.

More than 9,000 schools were demolished.

Families lost everything. Their crops were ruined. Their livestock killed. Their homes were gone.

Children were left without parents.

"There was only open sky above these people no house, no food, nothing" said Suleman Minhas, a staff member of the Bozeman-based nonprofit Central Asia Institute.

It took rescuers weeks to find all of the dead; many had been buried in debris or washed away in the river.

When the quake and 140 aftershocks stopped, there were 73,000 dead, another 70,000 injured and more than 3.5 million homeless.


Classes were well under way that morning when the girls in Gundi Piran School in the tiny village of Patika felt the rumbling.

ÒWhen the earthquake start, we were reading English, recalled Sadaf Tarneer, 18.

The concrete masonry school at the bottom of a steep mountain beside the Neelum River swayed, cracked and collapsed. Many children died instantly.

Tarneer's teacher, Shaukat Ali, 28, recalling the devastation and the fear: "The building collapsed while I was teaching and I thought, I will die inside."

Ali and dozens of students leapt from the building's second floor. They landed in the rubble, many of them injured, but alive.

That morning, 103 Patika students died, along with three of their teachers. "Many students, many of my friends died" Tarneer said.

Ali said that for three days straight, he buried bodies.

The tragedy at the Patika School attracted the attention of the world's media. "That time, CNN come, BBC come." said Sarfraz Khan, the operations director for the Central Asia Institute. The story of the school went around the world. Unicef, Oxfam and about 40 other nonprofit organizations descended on the area, bringing food and immediate relief.

But after a time, the interest dried up.

"The news changed and the journalists left." Khan said.

But the village still had no school.

"I went to the Army and asked for a tent." Ali said. "The Army was not interested. The major said, We are not able."

Ali knew the need for education was paramount. If the village waited on the government, it would be years before the school was rebuilt, and yet another generation could wind up illiterate.

"People were sending their children out begging." he said. "If students stop going to school, it's the fault of the government, but it's also the fault of the teacher" and the community.

"Those who had money moved after the quake or sent their children abroad or to large Pakistani cities for schools." he said. "But if only the higher classes can do that, the mental power, the thinking power of the poor is limited. Who will help these people?"

"I want a real school"

The following spring, Khan traveled from his northern Pakistan village to Kashmir at the urging of Greg Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute's founder and executive director, who wanted to know how his organization could help.

In Patika, Khan told the headmistress the institute would help put up tents. But she rolled her eyes and said, "OK, welcome to the club."

Really, Khan said, we want to help.

And the determined headmistress said, "Then I want a real school."

Khan got the message, but was waylaid. While working on the institute's schools in northern Afghanistan, he became violently ill. He was in such a remote area it took four days on horseback to get him to a doctor, who diagnosed an infected gall bladder. Then Khan had to get to a hospital. Three days and one wretched bus ride later, Khan arrived at a hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan.

"All the while he had a raging fever and was in septic shock." Mortenson said.

After two surgeries, Khan was released.

"I told him to go home and rest for a month." Mortenson said. ÒHe had worked for 17 months without a day off. He said, "I need an order." So I ordered him to go home and rest."

Khan did for two days.

"Then he went to China to see some seismic engineers and put together the whole process of how to get schools built in an earthquake area." Mortenson said, shaking his head at Khan's determination. "Then he went back to Azad Kashmir and found some masons who had worked in earthquake areas. Then he sent me a fax and asked for $54,000 to build three schools."

"And all this time I thought he was at home, resting."

So Mortenson queried him: Have you consulted the Pakistani government? Yes. Did you talk to the village elders? Yes. Did you talk to the teachers? Yes. What about moving materials? Yes, the U.S. military would airlift building supplies with helicopters.

"He had done everything." Mortenson said. "So I contacted the board. It wasn't a budgeted item. The board said, "Well, if he's ready, we have donors who want to help." So we wired him the money and within five weeks the schools were built. I was pretty proud."

The Central Asia Institute has since replaced seven government schools destroyed in the quake. The schools are still run by the Pakistani government, teachers are employed by the government and all other expenses are paid by the government. But the prefabricated metal buildings mean children in those villages will learn to read and write.

"They're not the greatest buildings, but they are doing the job." Mortenson said. "They'll be there for five or 10 years, until bigger aid can come or the government regroups. But right now it's a good solution. Our main thing was just to show that it can be done."

Cut off from the world

The earthquake was only the latest horror in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. War is the long-term reality here, going back to partition, when the British divided India and Pakistan in 1947, and both fledgling countries claimed the area known as Kashmir.

War broke out right off the bat, and, despite a steady string of battles and cease fires over 60 years, the dispute remains unresolved. At this point about one-third of Kashmir Ñ a narrow strip of land about 250 miles long and 10 to 40 miles wide Ñ is administered by Pakistan and two-thirds by India. The Line of Control marks the division.

The years of war have meant generations who've lived with displacement, civilian injuries and deaths. Military camps, checkpoints and soldiers are ubiquitous.

The people in the area are, Khan said, "mostly poor. There's no good land on the mountain for agriculture, maybe some animals."

Mortenson said "most people make money either joining jihadi groups, or they go abroad and work as dishwashers and servants, doing menial labor in Kuwait and Yemen and the Emirates, then send what money they make home."

Although Kashmir doesn't have the tribal lawlessness of other areas in Pakistan, it does have its share of militants, the result of a previous military dictator, Pakistan's Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, recruiting radicals to help fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and in the ongoing war with India over Kashmir.

Many of those soldiers were recruited with the help of extremist mosques and religious schools, called madrassas, that continue to nurture a generation of terrorists now turning their wrath on Pakistan.

Shaukat Ali, the Patika school teacher, was recruited to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He stayed that course until Sept. 11, 2001, when the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States triggered a fundamental change in his thinking. He returned home and started teaching.

He knows that other young men are angry, frustrated and vulnerable to the radicals rhetoric. Plus, the madrassas often lure recruits by offering poor families free tuition, room and board for their children.

Ali said modern, secular education is the only way to counter that temptation.

"We need in this time doctors and teachers, skillful people. Modern education is a must" Ali said. "Religious people, they are already working on the next generation. Many religious people are signing up their children to go to madrassas. And the terrorists (there), they are brainwashing the students."

He also is convinced of the importance of educating girls. Female literacy in Kashmir's villages runs about 3 percent. But one educated mother can, he said, "change the whole family."

"If there are 60,000 people here, and only five or six women are educated, you can't expect that in the next 50 years we will change the country." he said. "Pakistan is 52 percent female and 48 percent male. If you are not sending (girls) to school, you will have 52 percent of the country illiterate."


The quake also "finished" Nouseri, a remote village farther up the Neelum River. Homes were wiped off the steep mountain face. A girls middle school was destroyed.

"One student at Nouseri, her father lost both legs." Mortenson said. "It took four days to dig him out and then four days to get a helicopter."

Now, nearly two years later, people are still living in United Nations tents and temporary homes cobbled together from sheet metal, wood, canvas and plastic tarps. There is no road in the village; everyone uses dirt foot paths that wind through small garden patches, around irrigation ditches and through narrow passageways between homes.

The new seven-classroom institute-built girls school stands out amid the makeshift buildings. So does the water pipe running through the village, installed by the institute to release women from the dangerous, arduous climb down a steep, scree-covered bank to the river for water.

"The government helped a little with rebuilding." Khan said. "Government brought electricity and (temporary) housing here, but not schools."

The Pakistan Army provided a tent for the school and a nonprofit charity provided some steel sheets for shelter, said teacher Gulrash Noor, a local woman who has taught for about 20 years and lost a daughter in the quake. But she agreed with Khan. "Government is no help to schools."

She's pleased with the new school, completed in 2006, and said the students are slowly returning, which is good for the village.

"Learning is good for the future." Noor said.

Nevertheless, girls options are limited. Once they finish middle school, their only option for further education is in Muzafarrabad, a two- to three-day walk from the village.

Elder's meeting

One young woman who persevered beyond her village's educational limits is Fozia Naseer, 24. She earned a bachelor's degree in education in Muzafarrabad and is now a teacher at Balsari Girls' Primary and Middle School in the Neelum valley.

"But I am continuing my education. I am a student of law, too." she said.

That is possible largely due to the support of her family, particularly her uncle, himself a teacher and lifelong scholar. ThatÕs unusual, she conceded.

In this area, she said, "Ladies are housewives, gents are laborers."

"The culture is not so good here. They think that women are something to be kept in the home. But our family is good. They think education is a must for women."

Similar-thinking families also organized an appeal to the Central Asia Institute after the girls school was demolished in the quake. A blue-roofed school was finished this summer.

As construction was winding up, the village elders gathered for an evening meeting with Khan. Three of the schools teachers took the opportunity to convey their wish list: a second window in every classroom to increase ventilation; fans; screens on the windows to keep the flies out; a generator; and exhaust fans for the bathrooms.

But as the list grew, Khan pointed out that the institute was able to address only basic needs. Then one of the elders interjected with a smile and a nod of the head.

Naseer translated: "The community says thank you for the school. This is better than the tents."

There is MUCH more to come on this amazing story!

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