Archive for Saturday, November 19, 2005

Students learn hard lessons as schools reopen

November 19, 2005

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— Naseeb Alam arrived over the weekend for the first session of classes since the 7.6-magnitude earthquake devastated this town last month, leveling his school and killing 200 fellow classmates.

At 10 minutes to 9 on an overcast morning last Saturday, about the same time the temblor had struck five weeks earlier, the 16-year-old felt a twist in his stomach. But that was nothing compared to what he had felt when he saw the courtyard of the boys' high school here.

The bodies of 82 of his classmates were buried in two mass graves near the recess area where students used to play soccer and cricket. Naseeb stepped gingerly around the 50-foot-long mounds of loosely packed dirt, which were adorned with colored tinsel and wreaths, silently wrestling with his memories.

He lost three sisters in the earthquake, all of whom attended a school for girls not far away. The disaster also took the lives of a dozen of his closest classmates, including his best friend, Liqat.

"I miss him a lot," said Naseeb, a quiet boy with slender features, as he shouldered a blue bag full of books.

Slowly and unsteadily, under suspicion by many parents, school has started once again in this town that sits atop the epicenter of the Oct. 8 quake that killed about 74,000 people and left 3.2 million others homeless.

Officials estimate that children comprise half the earthquake's death toll. Across the earthquake zone in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, nearly four-fifths of all public buildings collapsed. About 10,000 schools were destroyed or damaged, killing 17,000 students and 500 teachers who conducted classes within their walls.

Throughout this Himalayan region where snow-capped peaks tower over valley towns and villages, teachers have encouraged students to return to their studies. Some schools have started classes in the open air, because of a shortage of tents and fear that buildings cracked like jigsaw puzzles might collapse in one of the frequent aftershocks. The government has condemned numerous other school buildings.

The boys school here in Balakot was luckier. A government official personally donated money to build several sheds of galvanized steel in a clearing amid the dust and rubble of the old school. Each structure can hold a maximum of 50 students, but on that first day, only 40 of 500 students showed up for classes.

"We're trying our best," said principle Shafiq Rahman. "We've been visiting parents in the tent villages throughout the area and we're sending students out to talk to their peers. We're imploring them: Please come back."

Rahman acknowledged that the sight of the mass graves had upset many students. He said the makeshift cemetery was created by the Pakistan army in the first chaotic days after the quake when soldiers ran out of room to bury the dead. Along with the two common graves are four individual plots that contain the school's watchman, a teacher and two others.

Many bodies in the mass graves were still unidentified or unclaimed. "This isn't what we wanted our students to see," Rahman said. "We know the importance of this. So we're going to move those bodies and we're going to do it very quickly."

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