The IoS Christmas Appeal: Bring help to the girls who go to school in the shadow of the bombers

The Taliban have been driven out of Buner, north-west Pakistan, but life is still far from normal, especially for the young. Raymond Whitaker reports
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The Independent Online

Hasina Shah, 10, used to enjoy going to school, where Pashto and Urdu were her favourite subjects. That was before the Taliban planted a bomb that killed one of her schoolmates. "Now I'm very scared there will be another explosion," she says.

Though Muslim and traditional in outlook, Hasina's home district of Buner in north-west Pakistan favours the education of girls. That could not be more different from the outlook of the Islamist extremists who seized the area earlier this year. Hasina described the process of intimidation that followed.

"First, two men stopped girls on their way to school and told them: 'We don't want you to attend,'" she said. "Word quickly spread, and some families kept their daughters at home."

Then older girls were told they could only go to school if they wore the all-enveloping burqa, which is not customary in Buner. Finally, in April, the Taliban resorted to murder. "We were having an Urdu lesson on a Monday morning when there was a blast, and the wall fell down," Hasina said. "A girl in another class was killed. All the children were screaming and crying. I ran all the way home."

Shortly afterwards, the Pakistani government, backed by Britain and the United States, launched a military assault to drive the Taliban out of Buner and the neighbouring district of Swat. Hasina and her family, like nearly two million others, were forced to flee for their lives. But even though the militants have departed, and the family was able to return home in October, life is still far from normal.

After the school was repaired, the fears both of pupils and of parents kept many away at first. Hasina plucked up the courage to attend after the first week, but became so nervous that she would go home at break. "Then two people came to the school and talked to me and the others about what had happened," she said. "That helped us. I'm still talking about it a lot with my friends, and some of us are still scared, but I'm now staying for the whole day."

The visitors to the school were counsellors paid for by ActionAid, whose work in Buner and Swat is being supported by The Independent on Sunday Christmas appeal. The charity is seeking to train 300 teachers in psycho-social support for traumatised pupils as part of a programme to restore the education system in a region laid waste this year by fighting.

In Swat, where nearly half of the 800 schools were damaged, ActionAid aims to provide temporary facilities for 7,000 pupils, who will be taught in tents insulated against the mountainous district's freezing winters.

Such help cannot come fast enough for the secondary schoolgirls being taught in an open alleyway at a primary school in Mingora, Swat's capital. "We used to have such a beautiful building," said the vice-principal, sitting at her desk on an open veranda. "Masked militants came one day last February, during the holidays, and told people living near the school to leave if they didn't want to die. Then they blew it up."

Although there is a heavy army and police presence in Mingora, the extremists continue to broadcast threats on FM radio, keeping nerves on edge. All the teachers I spoke to asked for their names to be withheld, and female teachers and pupils remained veiled in photographs for their safety.

"The authorities suggested we rent a building, but we feel safer here in government premises," the vice-principal said, indicating the policeman guarding the gate. Nor was the destruction confined to girls' schools: nearby was a boys' high school in which every door and window had been blasted out. The first-floor staff room was still in use, despite having one wall and part of the floor missing.

As bad as the physical damage has been the educational disruption suffered by tens of thousands of children who spent much of the year in refugee camps, and now find it impossible to concentrate on their studies. Months after they returned, many pupils are staying at home, either because of emotional disturbance or because their parents fear further acts of terrorism. The Taliban's medieval attitude to women has hurt female education in particular.

"Problems started to emerge a couple of years ago," said "Saira", a teacher in a mixed primary school in Mingora. "There were irregular curfews, and the school would be open for a day, then closed for 10 days. It got even worse when the suicide bombings started." But that was nothing compared with the savagery unleashed this year, when the Taliban emerged on to the streets of the city.

"Schools started to receive letters from the Taliban, telling women teachers and older female pupils to wear the burqa," Saira said. "We complied, but then they demanded that all women stay at home. Finally they started killing women they accused of 'immorality'. I saw two with their heads chopped off."

The Taliban were driven out of Mingora soon afterwards, but some teachers have decided, in the words of one of Saira's colleagues: "Teaching is not safe any more – I want to do something else." Most, however, are determined to carry on.

"If my pupils are going to die, I will die with them," another female primary teacher said. Your donations to ActionAid will help not only to support brave women like these, but to fight the ignorance and illiteracy on which extremism thrives.

The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal is supporting the work of ActionAid in Pakistan, where millions of civilians have lost their homes and livelihoods in the battle against al-Qa'ida and its allies. Your donations to ActionAid, which has been working in the country since 1992, will help these people rebuild their lives.

£25 Provides five children with a school bag, textbooks and writing materials

£140 Buys desks and chairs for 10 children

£260 Can equip a school with indoor and outdoor games kits.

£750 is needed to repair and rebuild each school damaged during the conflict in Buner

To donate to the IoS Christmas Appeal and actionaid visit: http://www.actionaid.org.uk/ios

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