Though Bara is a town in Khyber Agency, it is quite close to Peshawar. Parents who can afford it, prefer to send their children to schools and colleges there. Many students used to commute between their homes in Bara and their schools and colleges in Peshawar daily, but not anymore.
Bara is under siege; army and paramilitary forces have launched an operation in the area against the infamous Mangal Bagh and his banned Lashkar-e-Islam. All roads to the town are blocked and no means of transportation are available. Among those trapped in the town amidst the army offensive, are children who were supposed to appear for their high school board examinations this year.
Earlier this month, a few students managed to come to Peshawar for their matriculation exams, braving both, the curfew and spraying bullets. The students from Bara started their papers an hour later than their local peers. It was a miracle that they managed to make it to the examination hall at all –– but when they requested their invigilators for extra time to make up for their late arrival because of the curfew and cross-firing, their request was denied. Luckily, a reporter was present to plead their case and the students were allowed extra time.
This incident reveals two hard hitting realities of our society. First is that we as a society do not listen to our children. They are the ones who first suffered the trauma of living under the influence of a terrorist like Mangal Bagh. Then, they dealt with an army operation in their area and the deaths of loved ones as a result of the crossfire between the armed forces and the militants. They experienced the tragedy firsthand but the teacher did not pay any heed to their pleas. It took an adult, in this case the journalist, who intervened on behalf of those children, to get through to the teacher to make him understand their plight.
The second reality is that the teacher who should have been more considerate and sympathetic towards the children, perhaps, lost his compassion because he heard such stories or even more terrible ones every day, which had toughened his outlook.
Horrific as it may sound, these children were not the worst sufferers of the conflict. There are thousands living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in various parts of the province and their access to education is limited, at best, to IDP camps.
Furthermore, it is not just children living in areas under army operations or IDP camps who suffer. Even the host communities in the areas where IDP camps are set up suffer because often, these camps are arranged in, or near, public schools and their teachers are engaged in camp work, rather than teaching classes. In areas that were previously under militant control or army operations, schools remain open but many are damaged and some are without teachers who have permanently fled the area.
The worst victims of the armed conflict are children and the most damaging impact is on educational infrastructure. The roads and bridges can be rebuilt, but the time and opportunities for the children in conflict zones are lost forever. The turmoil has not only hindered economic growth of the area, but it has also reinforced a poverty-ridden future for such children and stifled their progress as individuals, as a community and inevitably, as a country.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2012.