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The Pakistan quake: Why 10,000 schools collapsed

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2005


Ten-year-old Kaleem's classroom is now a tent, his schoolyard a patch of ground near a stream. His real school in Bampora was flattened in the earthquake, trapping him under rubble for six hours before rescuers found him. Kaleem, smiling shyly, says he is happy to be back in class.

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Kaleem's makeshift tent school, which the Army opened just days ago in Balakot, signals that the first wave of healing has begun after at least 17,000 children died in school collapses. But it comes amidst growing demands from citizens groups for an investigation into why so many schools - some 10,000 - came down, and confrontations over safety between concerned parents and school administrators.

"The intensity of the quake was quite strong enough - but the shoddy materials may have caused even more deaths," says Bushra Gohar, director of the Human Resource Management and Development Center in Peshawar.

Ms. Gohar and other experts say systemic corruption in government construction projects is directly responsible for the devastating losses among northern Pakistan's next generation.

"This is criminal negligence by the state," says Gohar, whose organization is considering a public interest lawsuit against the education department of the government, and the department of communications and works.

The call for an investigation, fast becoming a political battleground, is but one of many immense challenges now facing a nation struggling to rehabilitate its future generations.

The landscape in the north is littered with flattened schools, eerily transformed into some of the largest graveyards of this devastated area. Some 500 students died in the Government Boys High School in Balakot, where 200 bodies still lie beneath the rubble, locals say. Some 8,000 schools collapsed in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and 2,000 in Pakistan's less-populous Kashmir region. All the schools collapsed in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, reports the Associated Press.

It is widely recognized that, because of crumbling schools like this, children suffered the greatest blow from the October quake. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that children account for about half the 80,000 killed in the quake. Uncertainty clouds the future of many of those who survived.

Coupled with the sheer physical recovery, educational officials are struggling with the unprecedented challenge of ensuring that surviving children receive at least some education.

"The government is planning to do a survey" to assess the cost of rebuilding, says Mohammad Tariq Khan, deputy secretary of the schools and literacy department of the NWFP government. "Until then, no one is sure where to open the schools. Even after that, we will have logistical problems - where to get books, teachers." Mr. Khan adds that, given the high death toll, it's hard to estimate exactly how many children remain and are in need of new schools.

Parents want to know why

By far the most pressing question, now increasingly taken up by a broad and outspoken swath of civil society and concerned parents here, is why so many schools collapsed in the first place.

"We definitely call for an investigation, to protect children in the future," says Arshad Mehmud, the deputy national coordinator of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, based in Peshawar. "We need an external, impartial probe, because if you do it through the existing bureaucracy, they won't be able to give a fair assessment."

Neither the federal nor the provincial government has undertaken any investigation into the school collapse. Any such probe is also not likely any time soon, observers say, given that the government machinery from top to bottom is either overwhelmed with relief efforts, or damaged itself from the quake.