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Flooding, Taliban Create Uphill Battle to Educate Pakistani Girls

October 7, 2010 at 6:32 PM EST
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Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News reports from Pakistan's Swat Valley about how efforts to educate girls are being hampered by both floodwaters and Taliban insurgents.
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RAY SUAREZ: And to a third country coping with a disaster. The floods began in Pakistan on July 22.

Now, 11 weeks later, in the Swat Valley, Pakistanis are coping with a double whammy, the floods and the Taliban. We have a report from Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MILLER: With 90 bridges gone and great chunks of road washed clean away by the cataclysmic flood, the frontier lands of Pakistan’s wild northwest feel even wilder now and more remote.

It’s taken army engineers two months to bulldoze their way to outpost town of Madyan. The road has only now reopened. And this is where it ends, a gaping chasm where 300 riverside homes had stood.

At a street-side store, we found these incredible pictures of the force of nature that came crashing into Madyan. Unbelievably, only a handful died here, but most of the 1,800 flood fatalities in Pakistan were killed in Swat. And you can see why, concrete and brick no match for the merciless cascading river.

Madyan lost its central market, hundreds of houses and shops, and its biggest school. Here’s the scene today. The skeleton of the multistory building in behind there was the school, one of 22 schools completely wrecked in Swat.

I was told of another village not far away which had lost its schools as well. You could only get to it on foot.

So, that’s the village of Badali down there on the valley floor. And 62 houses were completely destroyed when the floodwater came crashing down through the Swat River tributary here.

But it wasn’t just houses that were destroyed. Two schools were obliterated, too, one for 400 girls and another for 350 boys. This is their headmaster, Sharaf Zamhant. And he’s going to take me down there.

The floods demolished 8,000 schools in Pakistan — 5,000 surviving schools house displaced people. By the time we reach Badali, we have gained a coterie of school-less pupils for whom the flood has been a double blow.

SHARAF ZAMHANT, headmaster (through translator): We had two schools.

The boys school was over there, and the girls school over there. Eighteen months ago, the Taliban blew up both schools, but, after a few months, we were able to resume classes in what was left. But now the flood has washed both buildings away.

The future of our children and that of our women is at stake. These are dark days. This is a terrible time. And we are appealing for help.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Pakistan Taliban have blown up 276 schools in Swat, and most of them girls schools. Nine out of 10 women in the valley cannot read or write. When the Taliban ran this place, they put a stop to female education, but, in Badali, the floods have finished the job.

GIRL (through translator): The Taliban blew up our school, and now it’s been washed away by the floods.

JONATHAN MILLER: Another little voice pipes up. “The water rose and rose,” says 6-year-old Zakia (ph), “and then it took our school away.”

GIRL (through translator): The Taliban just wants to stop girls goin to school. They want to end all schooling for girls.

JONATHAN MILLER: But it will take more than floods and militants to crush ambition here.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.

Everybody wants to be a doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

JONATHAN MILLER: We’re on the road back to Mingora, the capital of Swat. We pass flood-damaged buildings that look like they have been bombed or shelled.

And then there are the ones which have been bombed and shelled. In May last year, the Pakistani army pummeled, then violently expelled the Taliban who had occupied Swat Valley for 18 months.

During their reign of terror, this place was dubbed “Slaughter Square.” The Taliban dumped the beheaded corpses of those they executed under the telegraph pole, hanging from the same pole now, a wanted posters for Talibs on the run.

Memories of those barbarous times are raw. The former shopping center in “Slaughter Square” is still a crime scene. It was the Taliban’s detention and execution center. The Taliban themselves aren’t far away, even now.

The valley bristles with soldiers, spies, informers, paramilitary police, and well-armed neighborhood watch committees, like the one I met in nearby Bara Bandai. The local jirga council wanted us to see their latest project, so we followed our armed escort into a residential district.

This was their local girls school, until the Talibs bombed it.

MAN: They want people to become illiterate.

JONATHAN MILLER: Yes.

MAN: So, no education.

JONATHAN MILLER: The bombing of girls schools has escalated since the flood, with several more destroyed across the northwest, including Swat. The jirga’s president said people around here had been terrorized.

MAN: If they refuse, they will kill them.

JONATHAN MILLER: Yes.

MAN: Taliban will kill them.

JONATHAN MILLER: Yes. We turned into a nearby building with bullet holes in the walls.

MAN: That’s the local terrorist house. They run from here.

JONATHAN MILLER: This area used to be full of Taliban, about 500 in this little area here. And the house we’re standing in was the Taliban commander’s own house.

And when they all fled into the — into the hills, this committee

invited the Taliban back to ask them to explain why they were continuing to blow up girls schools in this area. But the Taliban insurgents, of course, didn’t come. So, it was decided to turn the commander’s house into a girls school.

There’s nothing in the Koran, the jirga members told me, that rules out educating girls. And so it was that, two days later, at 8:00 a.m., we went back to Taliban commander Balil’s former home to find it crammed to capacity with 812 girls. There were girls, in fact, in every single room and at least 100 more girls on the roof.

TEACHER (through translator): I believe in God, and so I do not fear the Taliban. I know that, one day, we will die, and that, when that day comes, nothing will stop it. For now, I’m just happy I can teach my students in this building, even if it’s not a proper school.

JONATHAN MILLER: In the new girls school at Bara Bandai, they’re betting that Balil, the Taliban commander, will think twice before bombing his own home.

RAY SUAREZ: Beyond those killed, the Pakistan government said, the floods have left 20 million homeless.