After 14 schools burn down in northern Pakistan, locals wonder if the Army allowed it

September 19, 2018

On a clear night last month, Shams al-Haq woke to the smell of smoke and the sight of the schoolhouse near his fruit farm going up in flames.

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Mohammad Sultan Thaker was 15 when Jammu and Kashmir was invaded by Pakistani tribesmen.

Haq and his neighbours spent hours fighting the fire until dawn, when it became a lost cause. They soon learned that it was one of 14 schools, most of them for girls, set ablaze on the same night, over the span of just an hour in Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous territory stretching across northern Pakistan.
Once again, it seemed girls’ education in Pakistan was under assault by militants.

“The extremists have shown what frightens them most — a girl with a book,” tweeted Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel laureate and education advocate who as a young student was gravely wounded by Taliban gunmen six years ago in Swat, a nearby valley.

But since then, the easy explanation has come to look like only part of the story to some who live here. And as dozens of Pakistani soldiers moved into the area after the fires, many residents began considering new theories about who — and what — might have been behind the arson spree.

For one, the school that burned down near Haq’s farm had not been in use for at least five years — and there was an operational girls’ school just down the road that went untouched.

“If they were trying to make a point,” Haq said, “wouldn’t they attack that one?”
Students of a school that was burned down Students outside a school that was burned down in Hudur Das, Pakistan. (The New York Times photo)
Several other schools that were attacked were similarly deserted. And all lie on the same corridor of mountains that has become one of the most strategically and economically important regions for Pakistan. The area is set to become home to some $20 billion worth of development projects by China, part of an estimated $68 billion infrastructure program known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC.

“China gave us a big opportunity with CPEC,” Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, said in his televised victory speech in July.

Security along the planned economic corridor has for years been a priority for the military, and the burned schools are all close to the locations of major CPEC infrastructure projects.

That proximity has led some residents and security analysts here to wonder whether the only reason that Pakistani security forces surged here after the fires was because of the economic interests.

Distrust and resentment of the military runs so deep that some speculated that Pakistani forces have used the fires as a pretext to launch a broader crackdown within the economic development zone.

One writer and academic, Aziz Ali Dad, said it is important to ask: Who has the most to gain from the military’s sudden presence?

“Far worse attacks, many of them on schools, have happened in this area before, but no one was caught,” he said. “This time, we see next to no causalities and huge action. There must be pressure from inside the establishment.”

The military’s publicity wing has refused to comment on the situation. But the district police superintendent, Muhammad Ajmal, flatly denied theories that the army had somehow been involved, saying that the troops only came because the police needed additional help.

“These are conspiracy theories. There’s no truth in them,” Ajmal said. “The situation seems pretty clear: There’s a core group of bad guys, known terrorists who have been involved in this kind of stuff before. They paid locals by each school to set them on fire. Now they’ve retreated into the mountains. We’ve isolated them.”

He added: “This group isn’t like the Taliban, in that they’re small and don’t possess the ability to exert their will over an entire community. So they do things like burning schools — small-scale attacks that get their message across.”

Local police quickly drew up a list of criminals and known extremists they could round up. In the days that followed, some of these extremists clashed with government forces, leaving three police officers dead. Two senior government officials were reported to have narrowly escaped retaliatory assassination attempts.

The entrance to the Chilas valley in Pakistan The entrance to the Chilas valley in Pakistan, where a girls’ school was recently burned to the ground. (The New York Times photo)
Soon, the Karakorum Highway, the main artery running through the district, was lined with police and military checkpoints. Big army trucks became a common sight on the dusty roads. An all-out manhunt was declared with bounties on the suspected attackers and their collaborators.

Dozens of men were taken into custody, often without warrants. One school-bus driver said he believed his brother had been arrested simply because of his long hair, a trait associated with Islamic extremists here.

Given the strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan, episodes like the school attacks take on a geopolitical complexity, said Afzal Shigri, a former police chief from the area.

“Because of the history this region has with India, with Kashmir, and now with CPEC, there’s a lot of sensitivity to these issues here,” Shigri said.

Local residents were worried about the influx of troops to an area that had no large army presence before.

“It’s not that the army is coming, it’s that they’re already here,” said Haq, looking down the road to where the military recently set up a checkpoint. “They’re not going to leave now,” he said. “The system is set up that way.”

Conspiracy and mistrust have become steeped in the everyday culture in the villages and towns that line the mountain valleys, due in part to the fact that the region sits on the fault lines of some of Pakistan’s most serious geopolitical issues.

To its west is Afghanistan, embroiled in a war in which Pakistan has large stakes. To the north is China, Pakistan’s economic lifeline. To the east is Kashmir, the heart of the dispute between Pakistan and India.

The picturesque mountains around Gilgit-Baltistan are vulnerable to influence from all three, often in the shape of “agencies,” a local euphemism for informants and spies, both foreign and domestic.

But there is another painful truth here, too. Regardless of any foreign intrigue, militants are still a problem and education remains a vulnerable spot.

Of the schools that were attacked, the ones in use were islands of progress in a district struggling with education. It is ranked among the 10th lowest in all of Pakistan. Only 11 percent of adult women here are literate.

This wave of attacks brings a cloud of uncertainty back over families that were only just beginning to feel confident in their decision to educate their girls.

The principal of one the attacked schools, declining to be named after her office was targeted with a bomb that night, said that 10 years ago, or even just five, this kind of attack would have seemed all too normal.

“I grew up here. I was one of the first women to finish my high school education,” she said. “In those days, I’d wrap myself up in a burqa just to get to school. My own brothers didn’t want me to study.”

But things are changing, she said. Even the most conservative mountain tribes are starting to send some of their daughters to classes. “They wouldn’t attack their own schools, for their own girls,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Source : The Indian Express

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