As the orphanage in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province was forced to evacuate, children flee the battle zone.
Orphans face bleak future
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // The orphans of Swat had already endured much when fighting between the Taliban and security forces broke out this month. Mohammed Ali, 35, the thickly bearded director of the valley's main orphanage, said that at first, despite intense fighting, he thought he and the 200 orphans in his charge would not have to join the exodus of nearly two million people who have fled Swat valley.
The orphanage, Khpalkor, which means "our house" in pashto, is situated near an army headquarters at the centre of Swat's main town, Mingora, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where fighting continued yesterday. "We had already survived two previous bouts of fighting," Mr Ali said. "But when the army took up positions on the fourth floor of our building, things changed. In front of them were the Taliban and we feared that there would be an exchange of fire."
Mr Ali decided to evacuate the school when the army laid mines to halt the advance of the Taliban in the school's playground. Some children were sent to relatives' houses. But about 60 orphans remained. A first group set off from Mingora in vans; a day later, a second group of 27 orphans, including children as young as five, set off on foot. They covered 30km with older boys and staff carrying the younger or weaker children.
Many of the orphans told the story of how they escaped during breaks in the curfew imposed on Mingora. Imran, a five-year- old whose father lost his eyes in a mortar attack, made the journey on foot. "I was afraid of the aeroplanes and helicopters. It was too tiring," he said. Obaidullah, 13, lost his way and was picked up by the Taliban with whom he stayed for several days. He was released and returned to the empty orphanage where soldiers fed him for four days before giving him money for the fare to leave Mingora. When he reached Peshawar, NWFP's capital, he telephoned Mr Ali.
Zishan, 12, whose father was driving a car for a local politician when he was killed in a roadside blast in 2007, was one of those who made the journey to Peshawar with relatives. "There was shelling when I left and I was scared," he said. Like most of the other orphans, he wanted to return to the school in Mingora. Ninety of the orphans have been lodged in a girls' high school in Peshawar. The remainder are scattered, mainly with relatives in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). "We are trying to locate 140 orphans," Mr Ali said.
At the girls' high school, a large whitewashed compound with whirring ceiling fans, the orphanage, which is run by a staff of 62, including 14 women, has resumed its academic routine. An administrator's room was stacked with fans and water coolers. The Pakistani army had delivered supplies, including sacks of flour, sugar and tins of ghee the day before. "We still need sleeping mats for boys who are coming from the camps," Mr Ali said. Many of the boys had been provided with beds that were set up in classrooms.
The school building was requisitioned with the aid of a local Unicef-funded charity, the Dost Foundation, and the NWFP government. The authorities have so far been spared the headache of sorting out coeducational arrangements as the girls are on a three-month summer holiday. "What will happen when the girls return? Only God knows," Mr Ali said. The Dost Foundation, a welfare organisation involved in a number of community-based programmes, has made sure that bowls of aloo gosht are served at lunch along with salad and thick roti.
For the time being, the orphans appear to be better off than many other IDPs, who are staying in tents in sweltering camps. "We are mentally prepared to be here for only one month. We asked the government to end this within a month," Mr Ali said. Most of Swat's orphans have lost their parents since violence first broke out there nearly two years ago. "To give you an idea, in the most recent batch of 30 applicants to join the orphanage this year, 85 per cent have lost parents in the fighting," Mr Ali said.
Anas, eight, and Muzzamil, six, who are brothers, lost their father in 2008. He was attending the funeral of a policeman from their neighbourhood, who was killed in a suicide attack when another suicide bomber struck at the freshly dug graveside. The brothers' father was killed along with 36 others. The orphanage was founded by an enterprising scout group in the 1980s. In the 1990s the scouts set up a hostel and school, and undertook to care for five orphans after they scoured villages for "the most deserving students".
One of the first orphan pupils was the son of a taxi driver who was mistakenly killed in a feud between criminals. Another of that first batch is now studying computer science at Peshawar University. The numbers have grown steadily. All are trained in the scout ethos of rendering public service to those less fortunate. "I am happy that I am part of a good cause and that the children are becoming scouts and volunteers for our society. At least they will be saved from going in the wrong direction," Mr Ali said.
The orphanage has survived in large part because of the entrepreneurial initiative of the management. The school generates the majority of its own funds. It has taken in 500 fee-paying students who subsidise the orphans' education and welfare. The orphanage had run a catering service, a computer institute and a property business. However, the fighting has caused all three to close. "The problem we have now is paying salaries. We have asked the government for help but so far have received no reply," Mr Ali said.
The vast majority of orphans in Swat are taken in by madrassas. A survey in 2008 found that there were a minimum of 3,000 orphans in Swat. "The madrassas keep 50 to 100 students in one room. They only learn the Quran by heart and students collect food from locals. We provide food, a bed and cupboard and give full education," Mr Ali said. In some cases, after the death of a father, children - girls in particular - are sold into the sex trade. Mr Ali said that he had rescued nine or 10 children from prostitution by arranging marriages for the girls or finding work for the boys.
There are limited or no official arrangements for girl orphans. He has bought a plot of land on which he says he plans to build orphanage for girls, but until it is built their fate remains uncertain. The boys' future is also precarious, as it is unclear when they will be allowed to return to Mingora. "In the first two operations we stayed there and we had no problems from the Taliban," Mr Ali said.
The orphanage's good work is not in doubt in an area where poverty, deprivation and illiteracy, in part, fuelled support for the Taliban. Two brothers, who have been at the orphanage for 10 years, were "orphaned" when their father became a drug addict. He now works as a cook for the Taliban. Their elder brother had asked for a job at the orphanage but Mr Ali refused because the rules forbade him to employ the relatives of pupils. The brother joined the ranks of the militants. He was killed last year in a clash with security forces.