Winter Schools in Northern Pakistan
By Bronwyn Curran
In the high forests UNICEF keeps winter schools open as valley schools close for summer
JABORI, Pakistan: Across northeast Pakistan’s valley floors, razed by the devastating October 8 earthquake, thousands of temporary tent schools supported by UNICEF are closing down for the long hot summer.The first annual exams since the earthquake toppled 10,000 schools have concluded, results are out, fifth-graders have graduated, and the kids are heading out to join the wheat harvest, play cricket in the camps, or – for those lucky enough to have some semblance of a home – help around the house. But further up the mountains, in remote high-altitude villages that spent weeks cut off by landslides triggered by the quake, tent schools supported by UNICEF are staying open through the summer.
Season-driven, life on the mountaintops follows a different cycle to the valley floor. Summers are hives of activity. Winter brings snows several feet deep, and villages like picturesque Jabori more than 5,000 feet high enter a long hibernation. Schools on the mountaintops take their long annual break instead from December to February.When the snows fall, the poor families stay behind while more fortunate families migrate down to the valleys to stay with relatives in towns like Balakot and Mansehra.
“Come winter the well-off people go down to the lowlands and stay with family. Only the poor stay. We will take two months and seven days off in winter” said Rozina, headmistress of the Jabori Government Girls Primary School.
In Mansehra district alone, covering some of the worst-hit areas like Balakot and the soaring peaks ringing the Kaghan Valley, 73 out of 2,575 primary and secondary schools will stay open through the summer, breaking for over two months in winter. The ‘Welcome to School’ campaign, a joint project between UNICEF and the Pakistani government to get kids back into school in higher numbers than before the earthquake – especially girls - is particularly pertinent in the high regions.
“Scattered settlements in the high villages mean many students have to walk some distance to get to school, which turns many parents off sending their children to school, especially their daughters. It’s also hard to attract female teachers to remote areas because of the travel involved.,” said UNICEF district education officer, Krishna Bahadur K.C.
The Jabori girls’ school now consists of two UNICEF-supplied tents at the edge of a wheat field. It’s one of the 3,135 temporary schools supported by UNICEF across the earthquake-affected area, catering to 260,000 students. Because of the snows, the temporary school in Jabori only opened fully on March 1, while tent schools down in the valley began classes in late November. But they’ve caught up fast. "We finished exams last week. Twenty-one fifth graders have graduated." said headmistress Rozina.
"The higher up you go, the poorer people are. These are neglected areas. The winters are harsh and can drag on. The schools often end up opening much later than they’re supposed to at the end of winter," said the UNICEF education officer.
Steep slopes scarred from earthquake-triggered landslides tower above the roaring Siran river, rushing beneath the rickety wooden bazaar. Terraced slopes weave between pine and spruce forests. Jabori’s people - Hindko speakers from the Swati and Gujjur ethnic groups - live off wheat and maize farming, and by sawing the mulberry and pine trees into furniture. The appetite for timber stripped the nearest slopes of their forests – so the land slid easily when the mountains shook and roared on October 8. Survivors say they were blinded for half-an-hour by the dust from landfalls.
An old walnut tree arches the entrance to the haunting pile of rubble that was the Jabori girls’ school. It lies at the edge of the village, nestled against steep slopes of pine, spruce and mulberry trees.The walls of the girls’ school were made of rocks precariously held together with mud. They were so fragile that even in rain, rocks used to tumble on to the earthen classroom floor. The flimsy rock walls stood little chance against the unforgiving force of the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit as Saturday morning classes began.
Abdul Latif, the old school guard, pulled three little ones out from under four feet of rubble. Four year old Osama was under the debris for three hours. Osama’s older sister Mehreen had made it to the doorway when the raining rocks caught her. A mullah from the mosque next door pulled her out. “I thought everyone was dead and injured,” Mehreen recalls in a whisper. “I ran to my uncle and yelled ‘go and rescue my brother, he’s under the rubble’. There was so much dust. I couldn’t see anything.” Six year old Sobia’s thumb was crushed by the rocks that dropped out of the wall. First-grader Atique Ur-Rehman, a carpenter’s son, was trapped under the debris. “All the walls fell down,” he remembers. The deep gash on his head has heeled, leaving a bald patch on the crown of his head.
Six months on, all four are back in school. All the students of this school survived. It’s their mothers who were killed, trapped in the homes squatting over cooking fires. Many of the girl students step forward bearing baby sisters and brothers, transformed into little mothers. The 25 people who were killed in Jabori were mainly women.
The school has relocated to the edge of cultivated terrace field above the wooden bazaar. It’s a five minute walk up from the road, past an upended wooden house still perched at a 45 degree angle, past tents erected in the yards of people’s damaged homes, and through freshly harvested wheat bundles.
A younger walnut tree arches the entrance to the new the temporary school. The casing around the wing-shaped nuts is still young and green.“I’m not scared in this tent. I’m feeling safe here. I never want to go to back to the old school,” says Mehreen.
The temporary school in Jabori was first erected on November 15 before closing for the winter hibernation. It resumed full classes for 131 students aged 4 to12 on March 1.“There were no supplies to this school before earthquake. ” Rozina says. “The students feel safe because this area is open. Being back in the school environment helps them forget their traumas and sorrow.” The school may be a tent, but it is better equipped and no longer dangerous. “We are happy in the tent now,” said 10 year old Zainab. “We are safe from the stones.”