As of 2015, there have been approximately 700,000 internally displaced persons in the volatile North Waziristan region of Pakistan as a consequence of Taliban insurgency. Of these 700,000, around 300,000 are children of a school-going age range. For these children, a stable education remains a dream.

In late 2009, militant threats in the northwestern tribal areas of North Waziristan escalated dramatically. After various military offensives against militants in the surrounding regions of South Waziristan and Swat, the Pakistani army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in January 2014. The military has since been conducting an extensive yet lengthy military operation against the Taliban militants in North Waziristan.

The increasingly dangerous circumstances in the Taliban stronghold has led to a mass exodus of the region’s residents. This military intervention, despite its exigent need, has created significant issues for the displaced people as well as the Pakistani government. The already financially-crippled Pakistani government is thus faced with the immense challenge of providing relief for the refugees.

The refugees from Northern Waziristan add to the almost 1 million refugees who have been displaced during the war on terrorism in the country. The cost of providing basic healthcare and resources to the refugees has been allotted $1 million from the Pakistani government, with substantial bolstering from the United States and China.

Despite the funding, the conditions in the refugee camps are less than satisfactory. As the provision of shelter and food becomes an issue, the educational needs of refugee children have taken a backseat. Temporary schools established for refugee children are in abysmal conditions and are impossibly short-staffed. Many parents are told to enroll their children in far-off government schools. However, many government-run schools are being used as temporary shelters, and not as schools.

According to UNHCR, of the 300,000 children in refugee camps, only 5% are enrolled in schools, whether public, private or NGO-run. Many students old enough to work are choosing menial jobs over continuing their education so as to financially support their families.

Prior to the refugee crisis, the literacy rates in the Northern Waziristan district were only 16% overall and a deplorable 1.67% for girls. The increased presence of fundamentalists in the region who target schools—and, specifically, female education—has adversely affected the state of education in the region.

Unfortunately, for the families returning home this summer, the conditions for education have not improved. Many of the schools have been destroyed through the course of the clashes between the army and the Taliban; others are still occupied by the army as temporary bases. As schools across the country reopen in September, students in North Waziristan continue to face an uncertain, unstable future.

The government has so far failed to come up with a successful and effective plan for the rehabilitation of these students. Recently, the higher education commission announced a stipend of Rs. 2,000 for every student enrolled in post-secondary education; however, no such plan has been revealed for the elementary, middle or high school students.

The director of education for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—the education authority for North Waziristan—has suggested that UNICEF aid be used to establish schools in tents for IDPs who continue to reside in the camps. Additionally, the director has recommended a second shift for schools in neighboring areas, like Bannu and Lakki Marwat, specifically for IDPs. The feasibility and potential for success of both these measures have been met with criticism and apprehension from many nonprofit agencies, as well as the refugees themselves.

As the government deadline for the complete return of North Waziristan IDPs to their homes—set for January 2016—fast approaches, it is imperative that the educational authorities within the government focus on the rehabilitation of these students. The Pakistani government, with assistance from its aides, needs to make education in the region a priority in its budget. The goal of the provincial government should not be pre-2009, but to bring the region to a literacy rate at least on par with the rest of the country, especially for girls. An effective strategy and delegation of resources to educate the children of North Waziristan are crucial to the long-term stability of the region.

– Atifah Safi

Sources: UNHCR, FATA Disaster Management Authority, Aljazeera, Aljazeera, Dawn, Pakistan Today
Photo: Flickr

Education in Pakistan-TBP

Education in Pakistan remains a challenge. For over a year, school children in North Waziristan, in the tribal region of Pakistan, have been on vacation. But this is not the kind of vacation anyone wants for their children.

In June 2014, Pakistan’s military operation Sharp and Cutting Strike, or Operation Zarb e Azb, began clearing the militants from the tribal areas, forcing families to flee to safer territories. The militants—the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other foreign rebels—have been based there for more than a decade.

Nearly 10,000 school-aged children were part of the one million people who fled their homes. Many of these children have had no school at all for the past year. Others have attended school in make-shift “buildings,” sitting on the ground with a thatch roof over their heads. When a storm hit one such classroom, the winds blew it away.

Assistant Director of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Farman Khilji, said authorities are “doing what we can do. We have set up our own schools in camps. Our teachers from North Waziristan are now on duty.” With classes as large as 400 students, teachers are beleaguered and some give up.

It is not any easier for high schools and colleges. In the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, east of North Waziristan, Bannu Post Graduate College cannot accommodate another 5,000 students in addition to the 5,000 that they are already just barely serving. When Pakistan’s military allowed some families to stay in a few small areas of North Waziristan, high school students were allowed to take their yearly exams in Bannu. At the same time, the military imposed a 24-hour curfew making it impossible for anyone to leave their home.

Now, the military says the offensive is in its final phase after a year of fighting and killing more than 2,700 militants in North Waziristan. The military promises families that they can start returning to their homes. First, though, they must sign an agreement, an 8-page document called the “North Waziristan Security Agreement.” All tribal elders from both the Wazir and Dawar tribes agreed not to sign the document because it puts them in an impossible position.

The agreement holds them responsible for any militant attacks on the Pakistan army in the region. In fact, they must fight any enemies but are not allowed to keep any weapons. A Dawar elder, Gul Saleh Jan, summarized it simply, “How can we take responsibility for guarding the guard?”

Punitive measures for not upholding the agreement could include being barred from government jobs, having passports and other official documents revoked, and homes and businesses seized or destroyed. These punishments are based on penalties from the days when British colonial law governed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In reality, this law remains in effect today even after Pakistan became independent in 1947.

These punishments are severe but may be less severe than reckoning with the Taliban. President Obama has referred to the tribal region as “the most dangerous place in the world.”

Ten years ago, when the military was clearing the militants from other parts of the FATA, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda appeared in North Waziristan. While more than 10,000 government troops were stationed in barracks and checkpoints there, they made alliances with some factions of the Taliban. The tribesman felt caught in the middle: unable to deal with the militants yet powerless to ask the military for help. “If you said something, like asking why the Taliban were doing wrong things, then your head was cut off,” said Malik Atta Muhammed, a Wazir elder. “Eventually, there was no one left to question them.”

According to the assistant political agent for North Waziristan, Zaheeruddin Babar, the security agreement is based on the British colonial era law that governs the FATA. “In the tribal territory the tribesmen owning that land are responsible for the local security,” said Babar. The security agreement is just a reminder that now the area is not a conflict zone, and the government wants the tribes to continue to own their land, “…it is their responsibility according to the law of the land to keep peace.”

Seven tribal zones comprise the FATA, which was created by the British in 1901 when the area was part of India. After failed attempts to conquer these 27,000 square kilometers of land, the British entered into an agreement with the tribes. The agreement allowed the tribes to do as they wanted with the land as long as they allowed the British access to Afghanistan through a route in the tribal area. This law was the colonial rule that has not changed very much since that time.

Although nowadays the political agent is the administrator of the Pakistan government for the tribal regions, and each tribe is represented by tribal chiefs or elders, the tribesman do whatever they want—drugs, smuggling and other crimes, according to Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book “The Most Dangerous Place.” Gul further explains that the tribesmen are “very behind the rest of Pakistan. People are set back in the middle ages. The mindset is very conservative.”

Not only do criminals and fugitives take refuge there, according to Gul, but it is also ripe for non-state agents because there are no employment opportunities. There is no legal justice system in the area. “And the common man in these areas doesn’t have a sense of justice,” he contends, “for them Islamic justice is their shortcut… very, very quick.”

Given the history of the region, it is difficult for anyone to estimate when this unscheduled school vacation will end. The Pakistan military is not reopening the North Waziristan tribal district until the elders sign the agreement. And the 103,508 displaced families are returning at a slow pace— only 400 families have returned home so far.

– Janet Quinn

Sources: IRIN News 1, IRIN News 2, NPR
Photo: News