They faced the depredations of the Taliban and devastating floods. Now thanks to the generosity of private citizens and the UAE government, smiles are returning to the faces of the children of the Swat valley.
Swat's children can smile again, thanks to UAE
MINGORA, PAKISTAN // Deena Khan giggles with childish delight as she recalls her father calling her his English rose because of her unusually fair colouring and blond-streaked hair.
There are smiles as the 11-year-old remembers her carefree early years, playing with her two sisters in the street outside their home in Balogram in Pakistan's Swat Valley and revelling in life with her huge extended family.
But she still cannot talk about the horrific night five years ago when all that changed - when armed Taliban broke into their home and opened fire as the children cowered upstairs. Her father Ali Muhammad was shot dead, her mother Zakia Begum hit by a bullet, although she miraculously survived.
Two years later, the Taliban returned to kill her two uncles and her grandfather. This time, they didn't use bullets. Deena's words stick in her throat and she anxiously knots her hands in her lap, her eyes filling with tears as she explains the fate that met them by simply slicing a finger across her neck. "It was Eid when they came to my grandmother's house," she whispers, staring at her hands. "I am still too scared to go back there. It is my home but I cannot live there ever again."
Deena doesn't often feel lucky or blessed. But like her 100 fellow pupils at Parwarish school and orphanage - including 28 girls - she has been given a second chance at an education and a normal childhood.
It was thanks to Pakistani donors in Dubai that the coeducational school, whose name means nurture, was created to give new hope and opportunities to the children of poverty-stricken families, left bereft of their main breadwinners by the years of violence.
And when the school celebrated its second anniversary last month, she got a chance to say a heartfelt thank you in person to the philanthropists from Dubai who first dipped their hands into their pockets and made it possible for her to be there.
Under the Taliban, which seized the valley in 2007 issuing Sharia edicts and holding public executions, girls in Swat were banned from school and more than 250 institutions were blown up or destroyed.
Thousands died in the ensuing conflict and when, in February 2009, the Pakistani army declared a ceasefire to appease the Taliban, it led to an all-out rule of terror.
Up to half a million residents fled to Peshawar, Karachi or Afghanistan and 1,200 were killed. Nearly 3,000 children were deemed to be orphaned under a system where the young who have lost their fathers and whose mothers can no longer support them alone are classified as orphans; officials on the ground feared that figure was closer to 7,000.
In May 2009, the Pakistan army was forced to launch a major offensive to retake the Swat Valley. When the survivors eventually returned home in July 2009, it was to a fragile peace and to see their home, the so-called Switzerland of Pakistan, wrecked, burnt out and a shadow of its former status as a "paradise on earth".
Parwarish was conceived by the refugee camp worker Naeem Ullah from the wreckage of Swat and built on the site of an abandoned hostel with a donation of Dh218,000 (five million Pakistani rupees) from the zakat fund of the 2,800 members of the Pakistan Association Dubai (PAD.)
Dr Zia Ul Hasan, the president of PAD, says: "As Pakistanis abroad, we feel very strongly about doing something to help the country. We are really moved and impressed with the level of commitment of teachers and staff involved in looking after the children at Parwarish. They appear to have developed a family bond."
Mr Ullah says the school has transformed the lives of children with no hope: "It is not about giving them clothes and shoes - those are little things. We have instilled in them a sense of confidence. There is a sparkle in their eyes again for the first time in years."
What has been happening at the school in Mingora is a microcosm of a pattern that is emerging right across Swat, part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region on the Afghan border, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, where ties with the UAE run deep.
That culminated with the opening last Sunday of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan city in Balakot, a little corner of the UAE in Pakistan complete with 211 houses, two schools, a health clinic and a mosque built with Dh12 million from the UAE Red Crescent.
And when Swat's residents faced disaster with the devastating floods of 2010, which swamped a fifth of Pakistan's land mass and affected an estimated 20 million people, it was not just business leaders and charities who came forward to help.
The UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme (UAE-PAP) was created in January 2011 from long-standing links between the two countries. They go back as far as 1975, when Sheikh Zayed and his newborn government loaned $100m to support development projects in Pakistan.
Nearly 40 years on, that relationship has been sealed with bricks and mortar after the UAE government, on the direction of Sheikh Khalifa, the President, pledged to spend $110m rebuilding schools, hospitals, roads and bridges and providing clean water and sanitation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan, some of the most conflict-ridden, disaster-hit and poorest areas in Pakistan.
Wander the streets of Mingora, Qambar and Kalam in Swat and the stamp of the UAE is everywhere, its flag painted huge and proud on school walls alongside the Pakistani flag. Children walking to school bear rucksacks with the UAE flag; last month more than 30,000 school bags were distributed to youngsters in the region.
One of the most visible signs of the Emirates is the gleaming new $12.4m Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bridge, a feat of engineering spanning the expansive Swat river and replacing a 40-year-old bridge that was swept away in the floods.
The new bridge was completed in March and an official ceremony will be held next month, with a delegation from the UAE present. The Sheikh Zayed bridge is to follow and run parallel.
The scale of the project is both vast and ambitious - 63 schools, including 41 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, seven hospitals, 14 water treatment plants. Saeed Al Kaabi, a UAE-PAP team leader, says officials are on track to complete all the education and water supply initiatives by August.
"It is easy to send money or to build something in Islamabad or one of the big cities," he says. "Swat is a region which is difficult to get to and where it is tricky to make contacts with the locals.
"But our teams have spent a long time on the ground - about 12 days every month or every other month since January 2011 - and now people in that region know all about the UAE and are happy to see us."
His own conceptions about the troubled area have changed too: "I had only read that it was a dangerous place but the people I have met there are more friendly and welcoming than anywhere else in the world. Going back time after time has made a difference. We are part of the community and to see the smiles on children's faces is really rewarding."
Key to both the PAD and UAE government schemes is a sense of ownership; of not simply dishing out handouts but making inroads into communities and forging long-term links to see initiatives through to their conclusion.
PAD opened an office in Peshawar in August last year to oversee its humanitarian work, which now includes a second school and orphanage for 23 boys, the Khyber Guloona School in Peshawar. It is helmed by the headmistress Shagufta Bano, who returned to Pakistan after 23 years of teaching in Kuwait to "give something back to my country".
Meanwhile Parwarish is set to expand this year by building a new, more spacious base and taking on another 25 pupils. PAD is already involved in fund-raising for the Dh4m needed for its new home in nearby Odigram.
Earlier this year, the association held a fund-raising dinner inviting members to sponsor a child each for a year to the tune of $1,200. The bulk of the donation will go towards their education but every year, $200 will be set aside for each child and saved in a trust fund to pay their way through university.
Significantly, the girls were all sponsored within the first 10 minutes and that, for Mr Ullah, is the most crucial achievement. For while they may not yet realise it, Najma Shams, eight, who loves to read her English book A Busy Morning, Asiya Rooman, eight, who prays for her late father every night, and Sana Bibi, four, the solemn-faced youngest and newest recruit, have the valley's future safety in their hands.
"Education is the most important thing for our girls," says Mr Ullah. "They will eventually be bringing up their own children and if they are illiterate, they cannot pass on their knowledge and teach their young to stay away from terrorism. That is where it all starts."
* The National