BALAKOT, PAKISTAN — 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.
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.
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.
"Definitely the government is interested in investigating this. But the first priority is to rehabilitate the people," says Shafiullah Khan, the special secretary of the schools and literacy department of NWFP.
So far the only investigation undertaken since the quake is a criminal probe by the police into the collapse of the Margalla Towers, a luxury apartment high-rise in Islamabad.
Parents, meanwhile, are not waiting around for the government. Prompted by growing fears, they're taking matters into their own hands, directly confronting school administrations about safety.
Zarina Jillani's children attend Froebel's International School in Islamabad, which was partially damaged in the quake. "The school administration tried to conceal the cracks, but the parents found out," she describes.
Following an angry showdown between parents and the school administration, Ms. Jillani says, the municipal authority stepped in, ordering the school shut down until an independent body can certify the building's safety.
Activists hope that a full investigation into the weakness of public structures across the quake zone can lead to better safety measures in the future.
But many say that, even without an investigation, the devastation of schools can be put down to the widespread corruption in government building projects.
"The problem with government schools is that there is so much corruption with construction that many materials are not used," says Sameen Mehmood Jan, an opposition member of the NWFP provincial assembly. "I know [the buildings] are not seismic proof, but at least the roofs shouldn't have collapsed the way they did."
Experts estimate that between 30 and 60 percent of funds for government buildings, including schools, are siphoned off by corrupt officials. Contractors squeezed by such kickbacks have less to spend on materials, experts explain, resulting in poor quality buildings.
"This was a common practice throughout Pakistan, but particularly in NWFP. We've been tolerating this kind of corruption in Pakistan for years," says Ms. Gohar.
Observers say corruption in Pakistan has picked up in the past few decades, particularly since the 1970s, when banks and industries were nationalized, and when international aid pouring into the country, following another large-scale earthquake, was allegedly pocketed by corrupt officials.
As answers to this latest tragedy await, relief workers and government officials are doing their best to provide children with a semblance of education. Tent schools have appeared at many camps in Balakot, offering basic classes to a growing number of children. Sometimes that means just having the children draw, anything to keep their minds off the tragedy.
"The schooling will be different - it won't be serious school," says Sarah Crawford Browne, a coordinator with Church World Service, which is developing a school curriculum with UNICEF. "If we can create a comfortable environment, the kids will get through this," Ms. Crawford Browne adds.
On a recent afternoon, Hajura Haroon, an 8-year-old, smiled and blushed at the Army tent school in Balakot, a Pakistani flag freshly painted on her cheek. Like Kaleem, she was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Anik Walagin, a popular children's television program scheduled to appear later that afternoon.
Lt. Col. Saeed Iqbal, holding Hajura in his arms, said the Army's first priority is rebuilding hospitals and schools. Until then, tent schools like this will reach out to as many children as possible, whose numbers, he noted happily, are already increasing.
"When we opened, we expected there would be 35 kids, but when we started the school there were 80," Colonel Iqbal said. "So kids are coming."