Hundreds of boys and girls returned to school in Pakistan's Swat Valley this month, returning to their lessons after being forced to flee fighting between the Army and Taliban. Even girls, who had been banned from school by the militants who dominated the area until April, showed up.
After nearly two years of Taliban rule and a destructive three-month military offensive, their attendance marks one of the first, tenuous signs of a return to normalcy in this northwestern area.
Many children don't have schools to return to. Instead they are studying in tents, under trees, or amid the rubble where their schools once stood. They have no desks, chairs, tables, or shade. At a middle school in Maniyar, just outside Mingora, girls used bricks from the demolished buildings as seats.
According to Fazal Ahad, an education official in Swat, 220 girls' and boys' schools were damaged or destroyed, along with 130 more in neighboring Buner and Dir districts, where fighting also took place. The total cost of damage in Swat – including of hospitals, roads, bridges, hotels, and private property – may total $2.5 billion, says Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial minister.
Refugees return – warily
Despite the damage, Swat residents are steadily returning from refugee camps and neighboring towns.
Ali, a resident of Swat whose brother was shot dead by Taliban in Mingora a few months ago, says the militants have been dealt a serious blow and will not be able to return and challenge the writ of the government.
Many are more skeptical, though, as reports swirl of Taliban sightings in Swat tehsils (subdistricts) such as Kabal, Charbagh, and Matta. The offensive killed some key Taliban leaders, such as Shahi Dauran, who had become a dreaded figure in Swat, and forced others to flee. But residents say they want to see top commanders, like Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, arrested or killed.
Banned shops reopen; school reconstruction
Meanwhile, businesses shut down by the Taliban, such as barbershops and music stores, are slowly reopening, though more quickly in Mingora than in surrounding areas. Usman Gul, a barber from Kabal, is still too scared to start shaving beards again, a practice the Taliban had banned. Music, also considered taboo, can now be heard from shops and cafes, cars and buses.
School reconstruction will begin in September, says Gul Mina Bilal, a senior member of the province's ruling Awami National Party.
That will especially benefit girls, whom the Taliban barred from school early this year. Some 80,000 girls in Swat were getting educations, says Ziauddin Yousafzai, a school administrator. Although only a fraction of those have returned, the number of children back in school is growing. "We expect the number will grow as people continue arriving in the valley from camps and cities," he says, adding that the children seem happy to be back.
Eager students include Shama, a girl sitting on a rug under a tent at the middle school in Maniyar.
"My school was bombed by Taliban while we were living in tents in Mardan," she says. "They say it is going to be constructed soon. I'm happy that I'll get new books. I want to get education and become a teacher."
A hint of normalcy: children singing
In the mornings here and elsewhere in Mingora, schoolchildren can be heard singing the national anthem at assembly – an unbelievable sound for many people who stayed put during the days of Taliban.
Says Abdullah, one resident: "I've been listening to the sound of morning assembly in a school close to my house for the past three days, and trying again and again to assure myself again and again that things have changed now."