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Schools return to Pakistan's restive Swat Valley

Undeterred by Taliban militants, nuns rebuild destroyed school for girls
Schools return to Pakistan's restive Swat Valley

Students at the Catholic Public High School in Sangota, the only missionary school in Pakistan's Swat district. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

The Catholic Public High School in Sangota, in Pakistan's restive Swat Valley, was destroyed with explosives and what remained was set ablaze.

It was among 400 educational institutes destroyed by Taliban militants during a reign of terror that ended when government forces moved in to drive away the oppressors.

Yet the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that ran the school thought nothing of starting again just so their students could still be assured of an education.

It took four years to get the school up and running again.

It was a jungle with charred ruins when they started. The boundary wall had completely disappeared and the area was covered by thick undergrowth, said Sister Gretta Gill, principal of the Sangota girls' school, the only church-run educational institution in the Swat district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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"The watchman had put his cattle in our chapel, thinking nobody would return. He had brought in his family and was living in classrooms," Sister Gill said.

Memories of the school's destruction in 2008, after Pakistani Taliban militants took over the scenic valley a year earlier, still haunt the nuns.

The attack on the school followed a series of threatening letters in which Jan Nisaran e Islam, an Islamic militant group, had accused the nuns of trying to convert young Muslim girls to Christianity.

The Taliban, who had taken over the Swat area, had also introduced their own version of strict Shariah law and strictly opposed women's education and girls attending school.

It was they who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head in 2012. The schoolgirl from Swat Valley was shot for campaigning for girls' education and criticizing Taliban rule. She recovered to become a prominent activist and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. 

 

Resilience

Things began to change when the Pakistani government finally regained control of the area following a military offensive launched in 2009.

Four years after the school was destroyed, the Presentation sisters returned to Swat in 2012. The nuns kept visiting the school grounds, registering students to re-establish the school.

"Although one local family warned us of potential threats, many people reached out to us with food," Sister Gill told ucanews.

"We spent the winter days [keeping warm] burning wood in a steel bin, watching the snowcapped peaks from the school compound. There was no electricity, no water. One of our former pupils rented us a building and we restarted the school till grade five with 167 students enrolled in four months," she said.

The school building was rebuilt with the help of U.S. development aid and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. Many people reached out to us while the project was being completed, Sister Gill said.

Today, about 800 students are studying at the school. The school's orange gate is guarded by seven policemen deployed by the Swat administration.

The school now has 26 teachers and 10 workers assisting four Pakistani nuns. The school signboard, however, was purposely removed, according to the nuns.

Sister Gill feels there is now a lot of hope and opportunity to conduct dialogue with Muslim brothers and sisters.

"Still it is hard to believe that this is the same convent which was used by militants and then by the army during the troubles," she said.

"Our district is safe now from extremist forces. Girls are freely going to schools and we are trying our best to keep things that way," Ashfaq Khan Aramzai, the assistant commissioner in Swat district, told ucanews.com.

"It [the Sangota school] is a great educational institute for people living in far-flung mountainous areas. Historically, it has produced brilliant students and we are all happy it's back," he said.

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