SWABI: Seven-year-old Marwa cried and shook uncontrollably at the sight of the rubble and shattered glass remnants of her classroom. The Taliban had bombed yet another girls’ school in Swabi.
“I had to pick her up and hold her close to my chest. My worry is that we will spend our time helping the girls deal with fear instead of teaching them math and science,” said head teacher Razia Begum.
“I hope the parents keep sending their children to school.”
Pakistan’s Taliban movement, which is close to al Qaeda, has bombed hundreds of schools since launching a campaign to topple the US-backed government in 2007.
Like Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban want girls barred from education.
But the Taliban have failed to sell their violent philosophy to the vast majority of Pakistanis, and a campaign to terrify people into supporting militancy has had limited success, as the defiance at Government Girls Primary School No. 3 illustrates.
The students – age 4 to 15 – are undoubtedly scared, and disappointed about the damage to their school in the town of Swabi, 75 km northwest of Islamabad.
The bombs set off in the red and white brick school complex on Sunday were so powerful they stopped wall clocks at the time of impact, nineteen minutes past midnight.
Instead of listening to lectures at their old wooden desks, the girls will be forced to sit on the grass in a courtyard until workers clean the rubble and shattered glass from classrooms pulverized by the bombs.
Still, they are determined to stay in school, hoping to become doctors or lawyers and leave sleepy Swabi for big Pakistani metropolises, or work abroad, dreams that enrage Taliban zealots.
“We are braver than the Taliban,” said Hasina Quraish, 10, who wants to be a college lecturer. “They are brutal people, not good Muslims.”
In their ideal world, women are covered from head to toe, only learn how to cook and clean to take care of their husbands, and rarely venture outside the home.
Pakistani men would all grow beards, and the government would cut off all ties with the West and impose an austere system of Islamic law at home where those deemed immoral would be executed or whipped in public.
The campaign to bomb girls schools gathered pace several years ago in the former tourist destination of Swat Valley, about a three hour drive from Swabi.
The regional faction of the Taliban, led by Maulvi Fazlullah – dubbed FM Mullah for his fiery radio broadcasts – was fighting to impose its version of Islam.
It was able to do so after reaching a widely criticised peace deal with the government in 2009 which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called an abdication to the Taliban.
An army offensive in Swat forced Fazlullah to rebase across the border in Afghanistan. Yet he and his fighters have regrouped, started launching cross-border attacks on Pakistani troops, and have vowed to rule Swat again.
Sympathisers with Fazlullah and other Taliban leaders, meanwhile, frequently attack girls schools.
“I want to be a fighter pilot.”
That doesn’t keep students like Sana Khan, 8, from walking several kilometres to School No. 3.
She is well aware of how ruthless the Taliban can be, often overhearing her parents speak of how the Taliban kidnap and behead people.
“I want to be a doctor and help people. I want to go outside and see the world,” said Sana.
Pakistan needs as many qualified students to enter the work force as possible to help its struggling economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
“Women have to be educated because they have to be part of the economy too,” said teacher Mohammad Arif. “Pakistan can’t develop if its women do not learn.”
But good learning is hard to come by in Pakistan, which spends less than two percent of its budget on education, while pouring huge sums into the military.
Even hiring more guards for schools seems to be a challenge.
Israr Khan works a 24-hour shift at the school complex. His repeated calls to local authorities for reinforcements have been ignored.
“The Taliban are powerful and they will keep doing this unless the government does something about it,” he said.
The Taliban campaign stretches far beyond the classroom.
Suicide bombings meant to destabilise the government disrupt the rhythm of life in big cities, as well as dusty places like Swabi, where vegetable sellers on donkey carts compete for road space with motorcycles, and women in veils bargain for better prices in the bazaar.
In the centre of town, posters of 25 policemen killed by Taliban bombs and shootouts remind residents of their vulnerability.
Yet, the importance of education seems to override fear.
“These people want to destroy society and the best way of doing that is by destroying education,” said Nur Waheed, holding the hand of his four-year-old granddaughter outside a butcher’s shop.
“She said ‘I don’t want to go to school because I heard a bomb exploded there’. But we will send her to school,” he said.
Sara Ahmed, 9, doesn’t need encouragement. The bubbly girl with a white scarf has high ambitions in a conservative male-dominated society.
“I want to be a fighter pilot,” she said with a wide smile.