Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Taleban control of Barmal, a border district in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan. (Photo: Abdali Mahzun)
Fifteen-year-old Afghan schoolboy Emran Khan is proud of his detailed knowledge of Pakistani history.
Questioned about the number of provinces in Pakistan, he smiles and answers confidently, “Four states – Sind, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan.” Asked when Pakistan became independent, he immediately replies that it was on August 14, 1948.
But similar questions about his own country, Afghanistan, leave him baffled. He does not know when it celebrates its independence day, and thinks it has 21 provinces instead of 34.
Emran Khan is in the eighth grade of school in the village of Nurabad, which is in Paktika province, part of Afghanistan, not Pakistan. As for the first king of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Durrani, he can only say, “I don’t know.”
Emran Khan attends the Sayed Mohammad Maulavi school, one of many unregistered institutions which have sprung up in this part of Afghanistan, and which use the Pakistani curriculum. As a result, he learns through the medium of Urdu, not Pashtu – his mother tongue and the main language of southern Afghanistan.
An IWPR investigation in Paktika province has revealed that thousands like him are attending these schools.
While many parents are unhappy about the situation and fear their children will lose their Afghan identity and will be left ill-equipped for a future in the country, they say they have little option but to send them there.
The schools are not sponsored by the Pakistani state, but are staffed by teachers trained in that country, and use imported textbooks. They fill a void left by government schools which have been forced to close by Taleban insurgents opposed to any local presence of Afghan state institutions.
In areas where the Taleban hold sway, local residents say they would face severe punishment if they pushed for education using the official Afghan textbooks and curriculum.
FUNDS RAISED AMONG LOCALS AND EXPATS
IWPR estimates that some 4,000 children are currently attending 20 unregistered schools in the Barmal district of Paktika province, and that around 22,000 have been through the system so far. Seventy per cent of pupils are boys; the rest are girls aged under 11.
Taken together, the schools have a staff of 120 teachers, all male and graduates of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan like Anwar ul-Ulum and Sholam.
They are religious schools, also teaching a range of subjects including social sciences, mathematics, science, English and Urdu. The Pashtu language is taught, but only as separate subject.
After completing four years at the schools, anyone wanting to continue in education will have to travel to Pakistan and enrol in an Urdu-language college.
The students start the school day by singing the Pakistani national anthem, and most subjects are studied in Urdu using official textbooks that praise the Pakistani state and its national heroes including founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
One year-three book on Urdu has a section entitled “Lovely Pakistan”, which says, “Pakistan is where we sacrifice our lives. It is Sarhad [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] and Punjab. It is Sind and Baluchistan. We are all Pakistani children.”
Villagers help to raise funds for the schools, and tribal elders interviewed by IWPR said they had no complaints.
“We don’t have a relationship with the Afghan government,” explained Mobarez Wafadar from the village of Naar, adding that people were happy their children were getting a religious education.
Others, however, are uneasy about the Pakistani focus of the teaching, and say learning Urdu is only acceptable because it is better than illiteracy.
Momtaz, a 45-year-old father from Nurabad village, said he had three sons enrolled at the Dar ul-Ulum Haqqania religious school in another settlement, Naar. Although he had no other options available to him, he was unhappy they were studying in Urdu.
Nurwali, 30, has two younger brothers and four nephews at the school in his village, Sordag. He too told IWPR that studying in Urdu was bad for the pupils but they had no other choice.
“The Taleban would behead us if we told the government about this,” he said.
Each unofficial school is run by an administrator appointed by the villagers who manages his own budget, raises funds, recruits teachers, arranges timetables and pays the staff.
Zarjanan, the administrator at the Dar ul-Ulum Haqqania religious school in Naar, said funds were raised in various ways.
Families paid an annual sum ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 Pakistani rupees, ten to 50 US dollars, although this was considered a voluntary contribution. In addition, local farmers each donated about 35 kilograms of wheat or maize. These in-kind shares of the harvest were worth a total 200,000-300,000 rupees a year, he said.
In addition, Zarjanan said, the school heads went on annual fundraising trips to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia where they collected money from villagers living and working there.
“I bring back up to 8,000 dollars a year from my trip to Dubai,” he said.
IWPR spoke to 12 teachers about their pay and conditions, and all said their salaries had always been paid promptly. This is in sharp contrast to the state schools elsewhere in Paktika which struggle to pay wages.
A 35-year-old teacher of Urdu language who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that he was paid on the dot – 6,000 rupees, 60 dollars, on the 28th of each month.
“On pay day, the school manager calls all the teachers into the office. He puts his hand in his pocket and pays 6,000 ‘kaldars’ [rupees] to someone and 1,000 to someone else,” he said.
OFFICIALS: NOT MUCH WE CAN DO
Under Afghan law, it is illegal to set up a school without registering it with the education authorities. Article 297 of the criminal code prescribes a jail term of up to three years for anyone “interfering in a public activity without official permission from the state”.
Mirajan Sahrayi, deputy director of education in Paktika, admitted he did not know such schools existed until IWPR informed him of them.
“I’m telling the truth – I was unaware of this until now,” he said.
He said he was worried, particularly by the idea of local Afghans coming under the sway of Pakistani state ideology. But given that Barmal was controlled by the Taleban, there was nothing his department could do, he said.
“We have border police, the national army and national security units in Barmal, but they are unable to deliver security for the district,” he added. “Because they’re afraid of the Taleban, they stay inside their bases.
“If government soldiers with rifles and other weapons can’t patrol these villages, how can we check up on these 20 religious schools?”
Local government officials told IWPR that they were unable to inspect schools in Barmal – a district located right on the border with Pakistan’s unruly North Waziristan area – as the situation was too dangerous for them to travel the 80 kilometres out from the provincial centre Sharana.
The 22 state schools in Barmal, from primary to high school, have all been closed for the last three years because of security problems.
During the course of this three-month investigation, this IWPR reporter spent many hours outside the schools counting how many pupils were attending. Covering the story required him to maintain a low profile, since local people are very suspicious of journalists, who are widely viewed as spies. Fear of Taleban reprisals also discourage them from speaking to reporters, and many interviews had to be secretly recorded.
IWPR made repeated requests for an interview with the governor of Paktika, Mohebullah Samim, but was instead directed to his spokesman, Mokhles Afghan.
Afghan initially dismissed IWPR’s findings and said he had never heard of religious schools that used the Pakistani curriculum or taught in Urdu.
Presented with Urdu-language textbooks collected from the schools, Afghan conceded that it might be true. But he said it was probably due to “local corruption”, and said action would be taken against those responsible.
“I will call the police and national security forces right now to stop these religious schools from operating,” he added.
Abdali Mahzun is an IWPR-trained reporter in Paktika province.
This report was produced as part of IWPR’s Afghan Critical Mass Media Reporting in Uruzgan and Nangarhar project.
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