BANNU, Pakistan: Noor Kalam Wazir had to abandon his dream of becoming a scientist after fighting forced his family to abandon their North Waziristan homeland in northwestern Pakistan three years ago.
Wazir, now in his 20s, gave up on the hope of attending university after a Pakistani military offensive against Islamist militants razed their extensive grocery business to the ground in North Waziristan’s commercial hub, Mir Ali, in June 2014.
He was among the more than 1 million North Waziristan residents who hastily fled to Bannu district in the neighboring northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Like Wazir, most escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“We were well-off in Mir Ali. With more than two crore rupees in investments (eds: $200,000), we reaped handsome profits,” he told Radio Mashaal. “My elder brother lost his mind when he realized the scale of our losses. This prompted me to start from scratch here in Bannu.”
Wazir says he now often struggles to make ends meet while looking after his large extended family of 45 people.
He is one of North Waziristan’s 70,000 students whose education was disrupted by the launch of the Pakistani Army’s Zarb-e Azb offensive, which forced many to flee the region with their extended families.
While claiming to cleanse North Waziristan of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, and several other splinter and allied militant groups, the offensive turned the lives of the region’s civilian residents upside down. They had already endured a decade of militant rule in which civilians were frequently killed and tortured for opposing the militants. U.S. drone strikes targeting the leaders of these groups often added to their misery.
Many are still determined to change their circumstances through education. Shafiq Ahmad, a college student, doesn’t mind cramming on the floor of a darkened classroom at a private school in Bannu where teachers from local colleges offer lessons. Locally known as tuition centers, these private schools are the only shot Ahmad and many North Waziristan residents have at a decent education.
He says his family pays a lot of money for his education by scraping together the more than $100 needed for his lodging, food, and tuition fees each month.
“Only a handful of us can afford such costly education. Most of my classmates are working here or have moved to the Gulf countries to work as laborers,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Awal Ayaz Khan, a Pakistani government bureaucrat in charge of education in North Waziristan, is, however, optimistic. He says that with the return of a majority of its residents, most schools in the region have reopened.
But Khan says that only one of the region’s three colleges has reopened.
“With the help of military and civilian authorities, we are committed to reopening all the schools in North Waziristan,” he said. “We also want to reopen both the colleges in [the regional capital of] Miran Shan.”
For Wazir, the trauma has ruined his dream.
“As long as I am alive, I will resent that I was unable to get a master’s degree or a doctorate,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz Wazir’s reporting from Bannu (Gandhara RFE/RL)