Ignoring the drizzle, boys between the ages of nine and 14 play football against the backdrop of a mound of rubble that was once their school. Now school is a row of dilapidated tents - more than 16 months after the massive quake hit parts of northern Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Headmaster Mohammad Hussain watches the boys playing in a muddy courtyard in Ghari Dopatta, a small town about 25km from Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Pointing to the tents, he says: “This is the local government school for boys now.” The canvas is long past its intended life-span of about six months.
“The girls’ school is slightly better,” he muttered. The boys’ furniture consisted of rows of stone slabs – sometimes, just large stones – piled on top of each other to serve as seats.
It happened in seconds, and it’s going to take us several lifetimes to recover from the devastation.
The ‘school’ for girls, tents emblazoned with the same blue legend of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), did look better: rows of desks in perfect formation but the tattered canvas still looked past its prime.
“These children deserve to get an education,” the headmaster said. “With little or no help from the government, we are very grateful to donor agencies for providing us with even these basics, so that the children of this area can continue to be educated.”
Ravaged by quake and time
Ghari Dopatta, like its twin town Hattian Dopatta, which sits on the opposite bank of the Jhelum river, experienced disaster when the earthquake struck nearly a year-and-a-half ago, ravaging almost all of Pakistan’s north-west, including the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), adjacent to Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Photo: Adnan Sipra/IRIN
|Almost 15 months after the quake, rubble and debris can still be found throughout the region|
More than 80,000 people were killed, tens of thousands maimed or injured, while more than three million people were rendered homeless.
According to UNICEF, which is supporting 4,000 tented schools in the area to help restore the education infrastructure, almost 10,000 schools were damaged or destroyed, while more than 18,000 students and 850 teachers were killed.
“It happened in seconds, and it’s going to take us several lifetimes to recover from the devastation,” Khawaja Arif Majeed, the president of the Jeelum Valley Human Welfare Society, a local agency, said. Majeed’s wife perished along with hundreds of locals.
“We’ve been left to deal with this on our own, at the local level,” he said, pointing out another collapsed structure, the community mosque.
“Life has been difficult for all of us, but it has been especially complicated for our young ones. Just imagine having to wake up to the same sight of collapsed houses with many unrecovered bodies still buried underneath for all this time,” he continued.
Abdul Qayyum, who works for a Pakistani charity, Help in Need, in Muzaffarabad, said the same rubble-laden scene was repeated across the picturesque Himalayan valley – despite the length of time since the earthquake struck.
“Even in Muzaffarabad, there are certain areas where no one has shown any inclination to remove the mountains of rubble that have just sat there all this time,” Qayyum asserted.
Signs of hope
In the courtyard, the football game has come to an end as a dozen boys huddled around their headmaster.
“It’s become difficult for us now to keep things going,” Khawaja Ashfaque, a teacher at the boys’ school, explained. “Our children really want to study. But we have no facilities – and we’ve already taken on more than 350 children, so we’ve had to turn some away,” he added.
Our children really want to study. But we have no facilities - and we've already taken on more than 350 children, so we've had to turn some away.
“It’s heartbreaking, because we can see that they want to study, that they’re prepared to walk long distances to come to school. But there’s no ‘school’ here, as you can see,” he said.
However, Ishtiaq Ahmed, a field support officer with the US-based Helping Hands for Relief and Development (HHRD), said various agencies had been building schools in the area, even though aid workers said many more were needed, urging the government to act swiftly.
Rebuilding for the future
Back in Muzaffarabad, there appears to be a concrete plan in place.
"A total 1,561 schools were destroyed in Muzaffarabad and its surrounding areas alone,” Qaiser Alam, a district planning expert with the UN Development Programme assisting the government’s District Reconstruction Unit (DRU), said.
The DRU, which has been allocated US$66 million by the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) to rebuild schools and hospitals across the Himalayan valley, had already identified 650 schools that would be built over the next 18 months, Alam added.
“And then, phase by phase, we plan to rebuild all the schools that were ruined. But it will take time,” he said.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions