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Children in Swat face bleak future

Many families in Swat district, in Pakistan's embattled north-west, are packing up and leaving after Islamist militants began attacking schools, reports the BBC's M Ilyas Khan, who is travelling in the region.

School destroyed in Swat
Nearly 200 schools in Swat have been attacked in the past 20 months

Can the security forces establish the government's rule in Swat and protect schools against attacks by Islamist militants?

Will the militants revoke the ban they recently announced on girls' education before the winter vacations are over?

For parents of schoolchildren who can afford to leave Swat and settle elsewhere, the answer is obvious. Leave.

For those who have to remain, there are no easy answers.

People are generally sceptical about the ability of the security forces to push the insurgents into a corner before 1 March, when school vacations end.

"Taleban are everywhere, but the army is only behind barricades," says one resident who, like most people in Swat these days, does not want to be named. "It can only make things worse."

Morale

More than a week ago, a Taleban deadline to ban female education came into force. The militants also bombed a number of schools, including those of boys, casting a shadow over the future of education here.

The army is now moving into the remaining school buildings to protect them against possible Taleban attacks.

But parents fear that schools where the army is deployed will attract more deadly attacks by the militants, endangering the lives of their children.

Sher Afzal Khan
Sher Afazal Khan says nearly 60,000 students have been affected
Swat is paralysed by a two-year-long armed insurgency by Taleban militants, who want to impose their brand of Islamic law in the district.

The government moved in thousands of troops in the last quarter of 2007 to try to contain the insurgency.

During this time, the militants have been able to put the security forces on the defensive by conducting a spate of suicide attacks on checkpoints, convoys and camps.

The forces have also provoked anger among people by causing "collateral damage" as they struggle to hit militants who mix freely with the civilian population.

This appears to have hurt the morale of the troops and has boosted that of the militants.

The militants now control most areas outside the main town of Mingora and have a strong intelligence network within it.

Destroying the government's education infrastructure is one aspect of the Taleban's campaign to uproot the existing system and replace it with their own.

Orphaned children at a local boarding school
A boarding school for orphaned children is in dire straits
"In about 20 months or so, we have had 187 of our schools bombed out, of which 121 are girls' schools," says Sher Afzal Khan, the district head of the education department.

Another 86 schools cannot be used because they are camps for the army or the Taleban, or they are in combat zones where children and staff cannot go, he says.

"Nearly 60,000 students have been affected," says Mr Khan.

Institutions of higher learning are no exception.

"Three months ago, the Taleban banned male medical students from attending practical lessons in the gynaecology ward and the labour room," says a professor at Mingora's Swat Medical College.

Soon afterwards, the Taleban started sending representatives to keep a watch at the college hospital to ensure the ban was not being violated.

"We had to shift gynaecology classes to Mardan (another district in the north-west). There is now a proposal to shift the entire college to Mardan, along with its staff and equipment," the professor says.

Moving away

Khpal Kor (Our Home) is a local boarding school that made its name by offering education to orphaned children.

I hope the army will establish the government's writ in Swat in a month's time. If not, I hope the Taleban will revoke their ban on education
Swat teacher

The school's revenue system was designed in such a way that fees raised from every five children of affluent families, called the "revenue students", would pay for one orphaned child's education.

In addition, Khpal Kor ran a number of commercial ventures such as a tent service and an IT college to raise salaries for its teaching, janitorial and kitchen staff, all of them well-paid by local standards.

"The tent service closed down due to absence of tourists, and almost all the students of the IT college have left as their families moved to other cities," says Imran Khan, Khpal Kor's coordination officer.

"We also have information that more than half of our 500 "revenue students" are unlikely to return to school after the vacations as their families, too, have moved away. This will put us under pressure to provide for more than 100 orphans."

But many parents are still here and their children face an uncertain future.

"I have nothing but hope," says a college teacher who has a son and two daughters that go to school.

"I hope the army will establish the government's writ in Swat in a month's time. If not, I hope the Taleban will revoke their ban on education."



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