On a frosty autumn night in 2015, an army officer asked teachers residing in the staff hostel at the Government Degree College in Upper Dir to switch off all the lights until further orders. They were later told about intelligence reports of an attack on the college from the Taliban perched on nearby mountains.
The night passed without any event, but paranoia set in. “Four of the teachers residing in the hostel moved to classrooms, turning them into their temporary living quarters,” says a senior faculty member.
The army has been using a portion of the college as its camp since 2011, when the Pakistani Taliban based in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces made several deadly incursions into Pakistani territories of Dir and Chitral. The army is stationed in around 50 of the 125 kanals of the college land. The parts of the premises under its use include a staff housing facility, a mosque, a newly-constructed information technology block and a portion of the students’ hostel.
The troops’ presence makes teachers and students uneasy. They have stopped going to the mosque to avoid the security drill required to enter it, the teacher says. To get to the classes, students and teachers have to pass through groups of gun-toting soldiers.
Some say militants bomb school buildings only because the army uses them as shelters and bases.
And then there is the constant threat of a Taliban attack. Whenever there is a threat alert, which is more often than not, students and staff members are frisked and searched. Teachers say attendance dips nearly 40 per cent as a result.
Those are minor problems compared to what may happen in the case of an actual attack. “A terror attack at the premises would sandwich the staff and the students between two belligerent sides,” the teacher says.
The college administration has made several requests to army high-ups to vacate the college. They have not received a positive response so far.
The army similarly took over the students’ hostel of Government Degree College in Wari – some 30 kilometres to the south of Government Degree College, Upper Dir – in 2012, just a year after it was built.
A former student, Nauman Khan, remembers how he and his class-fellows were frisked and asked to present identification papers every time they needed to enter the college. A teacher fears the college may find it difficult to start its bachelor of science programme, in which six female students have enrolled. “It becomes very difficult in this conservative Pakhtun society for girls to pass every day through a gate manned by four army men,” he says.
Muhammad Wahab, a chemistry teacher at the college, believes the army’s presence is a necessary inconvenience for the security of the area. But he acknowledges that students face accommodation problems due to the army’s stay in the hostel. Many students come from far-off areas and are forced to live in expensive private accommodations, as opposed to the hostel, where they could have stayed at a nominal annual fee of 2,500 rupees.
On November 28, 2016, some students of the college in Wari blocked the road linking Dir with Peshawar for over four hours. One of their main demands concerned hostel accommodation. They dispersed only after the district administration assured them that their problems will be addressed.
Troops deployed in Barawal tehsil of Upper Dir are also stationed in many educational institutions. Imam Hussain, a district councillor and resident of Shahikot village in the area, says the army has displaced students of a local high school. They now attend an hour-long class in a middle school for girls in the second half of the day. “How is it possible for these students to compete with others by just taking an hour-long class a day?” he asks. “Our younger generation has been destroyed.”
To get to the classes, students and teachers have to pass through groups of gun-toting soldiers.
In November 2016, Hussain wrote to the district nazim to provide an alternative space — either to the students or the security forces. “He forwarded my application to the district education officer with his cover letter, but nothing has come of it as yet.”
Hussain says he has also contacted the senior provincial minister, Inayatullah Khan (a native of Upper Dir), and his constituency’s member of the National Assembly, to have the army vacate local schools. He agrees that the military’s presence in Shahikot is necessary to prevent or repel any attacks from the Pakistani Taliban, operating from the other side of the Pak-Afghan border, right next to his village. That was precisely the reason why the army came to Barawal tehsil in September 2011: militants were conducting frequent cross-border attacks in the area then.
But Hussain insists that the army should find other buildings to bunker at. Schools and colleges are not a suitable place for that, he says.
On the night of May 10, 2008, the Taliban struck at the Darra Adam Khel Degree College in Frontier Region Kohat without warning. Explosives planted along the boundary wall destroyed several classrooms. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
After the attack, classes were temporarily shifted to the residence of a state-run high school’s principal. The army eventually took over the bombed building and turned it into a camp.
The college was established in 1974 on 152 kanals of land. At its peak, the number of students here touched 1,000, but dropped to just 70 by 2009. Educational activities resumed in May 2015, two months after the renovation of the building had started.
The college slowly began to increase the strength of its students, which reached 450 in 2016. But the military’s continued presence on the campus poses a number of problems. “The degree block, student hostels, teachers’ accommodations and college ground are still under the army’s control. We have very limited space to hold classes,” a teacher complains. “We have to sometimes take classes out in the open”, since some parts of the building are also being renovated. “We have no space for science and computer labs or a library.”
The federal government’s decision to allow the recently-inaugurated FATA University to start its classes on a portion of the college land further cramps the space for academic activities. “We were never taken into confidence before the university was established,” says a college teacher.
The army is using – fully or partially – many other schools and colleges in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal agencies as temporary camps. The public is divided on the issue. Some say militants bomb school buildings only because the army uses them as shelters and bases. Others see the army’s presence in educational institutions as a much-needed security measure, citing the attacks on the Army Public School in Peshawar and the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, which together claimed the lives of over 170 people, many of them children.
At a recent news conference, Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani, a provincial government spokesman, said that the administration was aware of the issue and had taken it up with the army. When a reporter asked him when he expected the army to vacate schools and colleges, he was reluctant to give any time frame. “You know it better. Why are you asking me difficult questions?”
This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.