The Khar Public School and College in Bajaur was inaugurated by Imran Khan recently. The government and army jointly developed the school as part of efforts to develop the region. Image Credit: PID

Islamabad: Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, that was once the battleground for the country’s war on terrorism for over a decade and caused huge devastation and displacement, is now showing signs of recovery with the emergence of new schools, homes and business areas.

One such symbol of development is the opening of the first state-of-the-art institute, Khar Public School and College, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 15 during his first visit to Bajaur district, one of the seven tribal areas of the region formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Pakistan Government and Pakistan Army have jointly developed the school as part of reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. The school, equipped with a science lab, vibrant library and classrooms and playground, is ready to welcome hundreds of students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

The opening of the school has injected a new spirit among most of the 1 million residents of Bajaur where parents were hesitant to send their children to schools due to the reign of terror in the past.

Highlighting the necessity of public schools, Mohammad Bilal Yasir, a local journalist, told Gulf News that the region has several schools, but “The problem is the unavailability of qualified teachers and unaffordable fees. Most of the residents are poor and jobless. Those who are employed (outside the region) earn less than Rs10,000 (Dh260) monthly, which is not enough.”

Yasir suggested that jobs, quality education and health care facilities should be the real focus of the government’s development plan.

The newly inaugurated school is located about 280km away from Pakistan’s capital in the district of Bajaur, which is spread over an area of 1,290 square kilometres and shares a 52km-long border with Afghanistan. Pakistan Army has now cleared this barren and rugged region of terrorists after successive military operations since 2001 that had displaced about two million people and destroyed homes, schools and hospitals. The residents, who suffered for long, are grateful as peace has finally been restored. “Our hometown is relatively peaceful now. We can move around freely. But fear still lurks in the minds” as terrorism has left deep scars in the tribal region, Yasir said.

The opening of the new school is especially exciting for young residents of the district. Jalal Uddin Mamund, a student of Governor Model School Bajaur is thrilled and hopeful that all his friends and cousins can also go to school now. Jalal, a bright boy of nearly 13 years, already knows what he wants to be when he grows up. “A politician” he declared. When asked the reason, the kid shared: “I want to send all kids to school and get jobs for elders. I want to bring peace and prosperity to my hometown. Only a politician can do that”. He added that his father tells him that politics is an honourable profession to serve people.

Jalal’s father, Shah Wali Khan Mamund, told Gulf News in a phone interview: “it is heartening to see children going to schools in a region where terrorists once roamed.”

Expressing his appreciation for the new school, he said, “The people of the region have paid a heavy price for peace and have realised that there is no future without education.”

Talking to Gulf News, Bajaur Deputy Commissioner, Usman Mehsud, said the opening of the state-of-the-art school symbolises that “peace has returned to the region and now students can go to schools and colleges without any fear.”

He hoped that the young people after receiving proper education would contribute to the development of the society. Recalling that “Pakistani people and security forces have paid a heavy price in the fight against terrorism”,

Mehsud said government is now focusing on education, health, infrastructure, security and provision of basic amenities to the people who were severely affected by militancy and operations by security forces.

The Bajaur school is part of the reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes by the federal government to help uplift the five million people of tribal areas who long suffered during Pakistan’s war on terror. This week, PM Imran Khan stated that tribal areas would see “unprecedented development” and announced Rs100 billion annually for 10 years in the districts following FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in May 2018. After the merger, the seven tribal agencies, namely Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan and South Waziristan have been given the status of districts to address the grievances of the region where at least 70 per cent of the people live in poverty and the literacy rate is less than 10 per cent for women and 45 per cent for men.

One of the major reasons behind the alienation of FATA from mainstream society was its unique location on the border of Afghanistan that made it a breeding ground for foreign fighters since 1979 Soviet-Afghan War. The region became a frontline of the war on terrorism after 9/11 as some terror groups took refuge there. Since 2001, Pakistan Army launched 10 operations against the terrorists that devastated the region. In 2019, the army declared all operations over, withdrawal of security forces within two years and declared it the “time for development and economic revival.”

Pakistan Army says it is now spending millions to repatriate displaced people and rebuild infrastructure.

The security measures by military and rehabilitation efforts by government have offered hope to the people of tribal districts but experts call for timely, efficient and transparent development projects to bring the tribal areas at par with other regions of Pakistan.