Taliban, Pakistan Army Battle Over Swat Valley

Pakistan's once-tranquil Swat Valley is now a battleground in the struggle between Taliban militants and Pakistan's army and Frontier Corps. But it will take more than the Taliban to deter Wahida Begum from doing her job as school principal.

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Parts of Pakistan have been paralyzed by conflict between government forces and Islamist militants. In the past 10 days, hundreds of militants and more than 20 Pakistani troops have been killed in the region of Bajour along the border with Afghanistan. Fighting has also wrecked the economy of Pakistan's most popular tourist area, the Swat Valley.

Yesterday we heard about that conflict from NPR's Philip Reeves. Today he reports on how locals are worried about their children.

(Soundbite of children)

PHILIP REEVES: The school day is beginning. Dozens of fresh faced kids line up in the courtyard for the morning assembly. They honor their god. Then they honor their nation.

(Soundbite of children singing)

REEVES: This small school is in Swat Valley's main city, Mingora. Standing to attention in their crisp blue uniforms, the girls sing Pakistan's national anthem.

(Soundbite of children singing)

REEVES: At least they still get to go to school. Many girls in this valley do not. Not far away, principal Wahida Begum(ph) is sitting behind a desk in the courtyard of her girls' school. She's stubbornly awaiting the arrival of her students. The other day, her school was firebombed by the Taliban. Akal Zata(ph), the caretaker, was there when the militants arrived at 2:00 in the morning. He shows us the blackened science laboratory.

Mr. AKAL ZATA(ph): (Through translator) When they came through the door on this side, they entered here, they asked me to stay away. And then they started bombing the school. They had machine guns with them.

REEVES: The school day should have begun here at least an hour ago. So far only 20 girls have turned up. The rest, some 480 of them, are staying away.

Ms. WAHIDA BEGUM (School Principal): (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Begum says she's asked her handful of staff - all of them are women -to help her keep the school going no matter how few students they have.

Almost 100 girls' schools in Swat Valley have been firebombed by the Taliban in little more than a year. Hotelier Ibrahim Mohammed(ph) says the local people don't know what to do.

Mr. IBRAHIM MOHAMMED: They are powerless. What do they do? They are only condemning. You know that in Islam, what Islam told us? Acquiring knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim man and woman. So how we should against it that the women should not get education or for tomorrow we will bomb their schools?

REEVES: Ibrahim has daughters.

Mr. MOHAMMED: The day before yesterday, I heard that their day school was burned, somebody burned their school. Fortunately they were not (unintelligible) at that time in their school.

REEVES: That must be very worrying for you though.

Mr. MOHAMMAD: Yes, definitely.

REEVES: He's not the only own who's worried.

Mr. UMA HAYATT KAHN: I brought my kids here from England, and we are at the moment here. This is my country and I cannot leave from here just because, you know, they want me to change my life.

REEVES: Mechanical engineer Uma Hayatt Kahn(ph) came home to Swat recently after 18 years working in Britain. He found school places for his two girls. He hopes the Taliban won't interfere.

Mr. KAHN: This is a big worry, big worry, because without education our children cannot grow in a situation like this.

REEVES: The 1.7 million people of Swat Valley are almost all Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban. They are conservative Muslims but they stress this doesn't mean they do not value education. They point out that before 1969, Swat was a semi-autonomous, princely state, ruled by a progressive monarch, the Wali of Swat who supported education for both sexes.

Many here are outraged by the Taliban's attacks. They include Ziauddin Yousafzai, a peace campaigner who's also a school principal.

Mr. ZIAUDDIN YOUSAFZAI (Global Peace Council; Private Schools Association, Swat Valley): How can we think of ignoring half of our population to make them, to keep them illiterate and ignorant?

REEVES: Yousafzai says the Taliban militants cannot justify their strategy, although they try to.

Mr. YOUSAFZAI: What they say usually, which I have heard from them, they say that it spreads vulgarity and obscenity in this society. When you educate a girl, she becomes able to write to someone; she becomes able to use mobiles, Internet and these things.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

REEVES: You can speak to the local Taliban spokesman in English by telephone, though today the line is poor. His name is Muslim Khan. He says the Taliban attacks government girls' schools because it views the syllabus as un-Islamic. Such arguments won't wash with Wahida Begum, the principal whose school was firebombed. She'll be there every day at her desk in the courtyard, waiting with her staff for the rest of her girls to return.

Ms. BEGUM: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: We're not afraid, she says. We're in God's hands.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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