Defending our schools

January 12,2015

When many of the schools in Pakistan will reopen after the winter vacations – on January 12 or after – the foremost concern for students, their parents, teachers and all concerned Pakistanis will be the safety of their children. Many school managements are raising the boundary walls of their premises,

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When many of the schools in Pakistan will reopen after the winter vacations – on January 12 or after – the foremost concern for students, their parents, teachers and all concerned Pakistanis will be the safety of their children.
Many school managements are raising the boundary walls of their premises, putting up barbed wires, hiring more guards and struggling with the implementation of security plans in post-December 16 Pakistan in which even schoolchildren are seen as a ‘legitimate target’ by a tiny minority of extremists that believes the game having no rules.
For many of the primary level schoolchildren perhaps it is even difficult to comprehend that they too are in the line of fire. How can children as young as six or seven or 10 or 12 even realise that there are men, claiming to be ‘holy warriors’, waiting for an opportunity to strike them with bullets and bombs. Even when writing these words or the mere thought that such a barbarity remains in the realm of possibility in our Islamic Republic makes a normal and sane human being shudder with sheer horror.
A large number of secondary-level teenage boys and girls too perhaps cannot fathom the enormity of the lurking danger. Those who understand the gravity have muted questions in their eyes. And their elders – like you and me, or the high and mighty government officials, or the intellectuals and the analysts – have no sensible answers to calm their nerves. We cannot lie to our children that their fears are misplaced or exaggerated. We cannot assure them that they will be safe in their schools. We cannot promise them that matters will be back to normal soon. Yes, many of us can take a bullet ourselves for our children, but cannot provide them a safe, secure and carefree environment to study and play – as we once did in this very country not very long ago. We are so helpless.
January 2015 has dawned with a scary realisation that Pakistan has transformed into a more dangerous, more cruel and treacherous country than it was say even a year ago. In January 2014, we had perhaps reconciled and learnt to live with the fact that school buildings being blown up remains a norm in some volatile parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and Fata.
We all knew that Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools in KP and Fata. According to various conflict monitoring groups and official figures, more than 1,000 schools have been partially damaged or destroyed from 2007 to date.
However, children specifically were not the target, barring a few incidents including the October 9, 2012 attack, in which Malala Yousafzai and her two friends were wounded in Swat or the January 6, 2014 attempted suicide attack at a government school in Hangu which was foiled by 17-year-old Aitzaz Hassan at the cost of his live.
Such attacks jolted Pakistan. Many of us shared the pain and anguish of these atrocities. In our words and silent prayers we stood by the victims. Yet for the majority of us all this tragic action had been unfolding ‘somewhere else’ – not close to our own homes and schools where our children go.
We had all learned to live, stay partially concerned or stand totally indifferent to the string of suicide attacks on our places of worship, markets, hotels and sensitive defence and government installations that have claimed more than 60,000 lives since early 2002. The routine religiously and politically motivated targeted killings do shock us, but perhaps nothing more.
However, the December 16 attack at the Peshawar Army Public School has changed all that. The extremists have drastically lowered the bar and the rules of engagement. Even by government reports, the danger and threat perception have increased manifold.
Schools are no heavily guarded cantonment areas or the homes and workplaces of our ruling elite, who travel with gunmen and long security convoys. Schools are soft, easy targets – available in every major city and town. Some of the private or army-run schools and colleges can be in more danger than others. Providing fool-proof security to every educational institution is next to impossible, despite walls being raised and barbed wires, barricades and guards being placed all around.
In Karachi alone, there are more than 6,000 private and 400-plus government schools. No master security plan can offer them a perfect cover against an elusive enemy, who picks his own timing and target for an attack. It is a nightmarish challenge for any country that can place some select institutions higher on its sensitive list as potential targets.
However, that does not mean that whatever security arrangements are possible should not be made with public mobilisation and support. But the key to success remains more in taking on the extremists aggressively rather than such defensive arrangements. For this, the ongoing military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, is the solution The military leadership appears determined that there will be no letup in taking on the extremists. That is the only solution the state has when dealing with hardened extremists and terrorists in the near to mid-term.
As long-term measures the importance of neutralising and reforming the breeding grounds of the extremist mindset, especially reforming seminaries and squeezing political, financial and social space for extremist operatives should remain high on the priority list.
This is where the role of civilian leaders is of paramount importance. Their vision in defeating the extremist ideology and resolve to back the armed forces will decide the outcome of this conflict.
The civilian leadership has taken a step in the right direction by amending the constitution, paving the way for the establishment of the military courts. When they have failed all these years to overhaul the country’s dysfunctional judicial system, which allowed the majority of terrorists to go scot-free then there was no alternative other than to take extraordinary measures for these extraordinary times.
The way our judges of the anti-terrorist and other courts were being threatened, witnesses silenced and prosecutors targeted, military courts remain the only answer to dispense justice to those waging war against the state. The low conviction rate of terrorists, and their acquittals, should not be a secret to those senators and lawmakers who were seen shedding crocodile’s tears for the future of democracy while voting for the 21st constitutional amendment. They seem also to be unaware of the fact that more than 70 percent of the acquitted terrorists rejoin their respective groups and resume their anti-state activities. And even anti-terrorists courts, which are required to decide the cases within seven days, fail to do so for months and even years because each judge is burdened with hundreds of cases as well as administrative workload.
The theatrics of one of the PPP senators on the issue of military courts can give him two minutes of proverbial fame on 24/7 news channels, but will fail to address the existentialist challenge faced by today’s Pakistan. This senator should have resigned rather than voting ‘yes’ for the amendment to keep his conscience at peace.
Similarly, the hue and cry raised by human rights and other vested interest groups against the partial resumption of death penalty for terror convicts after a criminal gap of six years only appears to be aimed at benefiting killers at the cost of victims and their families and winning laurels from the European Union and their foreign donors. These so-called liberals are out of sync from Pakistan’s objective realities.
An internal war has been imposed on Pakistan by an enemy that is even targeting our children.
The state, its institutions and the people have every right to defend the future of Pakistan. No political system, no international convention, no foreign pressure and no bleating dissenting voices are worth more than the country. We have no choice but to fight and win this war.
The writer is editor The News, Karachi.


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