They say war destroys generations. In Swat, the uncomfortable truth is that it created a generation of children who became orphans when their fathers were killed—fighting each other. Some were policemen, others were militants.
It is 2018, and the conflict has ended. The men are gone. But what survives are their children and they have to live among each other. And because of the efforts of one man, Muhammad Ali, they now study together under one roof.
The children come to Muhammad Ali’s Khpal Kor Model School that is located just a kilometer from where one of Swat’s most famous students, Malala Yousafzai, was shot and injured by militants in 2012. Ali is a former scout, a presidential award winner and a renowned social activist.
When you ask him why he started Khpal Kor, he will point to the waters of Makan Bagh Khwar, visible from the balcony of his office. He exhales deeply as if being released from memories.
He says he doesn’t remember how many bodies were found in the waters during operation Rah-e-Rast that was launched in 2009. The water made him think of the orphans of these men—policemen, security forces and militants. It was only through an education that he could do his part to stop massacres from happening in the future.
Muhammad Ali is not the only one in his area who was preoccupied with the welfare of future generations. In the late 1980s, some of his scouts started taking care of children whose fathers were killed in tribal rivalries or were gunned down because they were contract killers. “We would wash their clothes, provide them food and if possible help them with an education,” he says. This was the germ for Khpal Kor that opened in 1996.
They started with just a one-room school. By 2018, Khpal Kor has two branches in Swat, one for girls and one for boys, with 2,000 students at each. Out of this a total of 880 are orphan students. Out of these more than 350 had fathers who were militants and the rest are children of martyred security forces and police.
“Initially it was hard for me to persuade the families of the children whose parents were killed by security forces or by militants to admit them in my school,” he says. How could some mothers tolerate their children sitting next to the children of men who killed their husbands? “It was one of the worse times in my life,” Ali says.
The school slowly gained a reputation and other students enrolled. They pay Rs2,000 a month which helps cover the orphan students whose expenses are just Rs5,000 a month. Well-off people in Swat and across the country also pitch in. Some private donors pay for up to 30 students a year.
For Ali, the toughest job is refusing applications for students whose fathers have gone missing. “In 2018 alone I received around 1,100 such applications and I have to turn them down as I am not allowed by the government to entertain them,” he says.
The children of men who have been killed in the conflict arrive at Khpal Kor with varying degrees of trauma. This is why they do not study for a year but are sent on picnics and study music. Psychologists work with them. There is no corporal punishment but if a student misbehaves in the hostel or during classes they are simply not allowed to go for the next excursion, which is a disciplinary tactic that works like a charm.
Life at home has also obviously changed for the children with the deaths of their fathers. “I have come across many such accounts of the mothers of such students who were forced to get involved in prostitution just to feed their kids,” Ali says. But one positive effect has been that he has stories of women who stopped after their children got admission.
The real challenge is to teach the child of a man who was a militant. At one point or the other, what is being said in the classroom can diverge from what the child has heard at home. Khpal Kor Islamiat teacher Rehmat Ali says that basic Islamic education at the primary level is not a problem but it gets complex in grades 9 and 10. “Many students get especially confused when they come across the Islamic Studies syllabus,” he says. These children have generally been exposed to a type of interpretation and they are from vulnerable backgrounds. At times they ask questions which need answers that make it difficult to stick to the syllabus. “It’s a flawed syllabus especially while addressing issues of jihad,” he says.
In his opinion, if the government is interested in the well-being of such students and wants to de-radicalize this generation, it will have to strive to get people from different walks of life to work on the syllabus so it is diverse. “They need a syllabus on a very different level,” he argues. The teachers can’t risk leaving the students confused but they can’t make it up on their own as the students have to sit Matric exams based on the textbooks. In that syllabus they have to answer questions just like any other student from some other district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—except these students have been through a very different life experience. Just because you can’t tell the difference between the child of a militant and the child of a member of the security forces doesn’t mean that what is going on beneath the surface is the same as well.