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Earthquake Aftermath Shakes Foundations Of Education

Residents walk past the rubble of a house after it was damaged by an earthquake in Swat on October 26.
Residents walk past the rubble of a house after it was damaged by an earthquake in Swat on October 26.

Mohammad Naveed remembers the day his school shook violently in northwestern Pakistan. The seventh grader considers himself lucky for surviving last month's earthquake by quickly running down the stairs and into the school grounds from their first-floor classroom.

But the 12-year-old says he might not be lucky again if another major quake strikes his village, Faizabad, in the mountainous Swat valley. While the October 26 disaster killed hundreds, it caused major damage to buildings across the region. Naveed's school is marred by large cracks in the quake's aftermath.

"The earthquake left our school badly damaged. Every time I climb up or down the stairs, I am reminded that this building might fall anytime because you can see the cracks everywhere," he said. "This building will fall on top of us if there are more tremors. How could we survive again?" he said.

His teacher Mohamad Ali says the quake damaged more than 65 schools in Swat so badly that most parents are reluctant to send their children to school because of security concerns.

Ali says the quake and aftershocks have terrified his students to the extent that they are often unable to concentrate on learning in their damaged school buildings.

"Obviously, learning is impossible in an atmosphere of fear," he says. "I can tell you that most of our educational activities have ceased after the earthquake."

Ali says they have even attempted holding classes outside, but winter rains and snowfall make it difficult to do so regularly.

"The weather is already very cold, but our school building is unlikely to survive a heavy rain or snowfall," he added.

Swat is one of the most affected districts in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which bore the brunt of the October 26 quake that killed more than 300 and injured thousands across Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Provincial authorities say the tremor destroyed 150 schools and extensively or partially damaged more than 1,000 educational institutions. Most of these are concentrated in Swat and the adjacent mountainous districts of Malakand region. Scores of schools in the nearby Bajaur district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas also met the same fate.

Ali sees no urgency on the part of the government to address the crisis.

But Muhammad Atif, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's education minister, says his administration is surveying schools to assess the damage and plan for their repairs and reconstruction.

He says the government has already provided some aid to schools destroyed by the quake.

"We are trying to reach the most affected areas quickly, and our first response is to provide schools with tents or rented buildings," he says. "We are trying our best to prevent a major disruption in the education of our children."

Atif says the government response is also restrained by its finances because the current provincial budget didn't foresee the disaster and thus allocated no money for rebuilding hundreds of schools.

The response from Pakistan's ubiquitous nongovernmental aid groups has also been lackluster. Zahid Khan leads the Sarhad Rural Support Program, one of the major local charities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He says donors and international organizations have given them little money for school reconstruction.

He says Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's government needs to make a formal request for international assistance. "Senior government officials have said they can handle this situation on their own, so donors are reluctant to aid the people directly," Khan said.

The Pakistani government's track record in rehabilitating earthquake-affected schools has been dismal. It has yet to rebuild scores of schools in the remote northwestern Kashmir region, where a powerful earthquake killed nearly 100,000 people in October 2005.

Nearly 20,000 schoolchildren died in the disaster.