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Schools under siege

The writer is a member of staff.

The writer is a member of staff.

A MESSAGE circulating over the internet amongst Pakistani circles in recent days is titled ‘How to survive a school or university shooting until response’. The 10-point guide advises running away if possible and adds: “Grab any weapon like [a] sharp scissor or any other thing which you can use in case the attacker is on your head.” People in the line of fire should “play dead as a last resort”, it says.

And thus it is that across the country, parents and guardians are wondering whether, and how, to broach the subject, with their young children, of what to do in case their educational institution is attacked by militants. In terms of older students — more than, say, seven or eight years — such grim talking points are already under debate; the threat is impossible for even the younger ones to be unaware of.

The country’s schools and colleges, the places of learning where the future is shaped one building block at a time, are under direct assault. The fear is real and palpable, and was most obviously evidenced by the chaos last week when many institutions across the country shut down temporarily, one after the other, in many cases without any notice. The closures did not occur as a result of any centralised or uniform decision by the governments at the centre or the provinces; it seems to have been a case of panic.

It would be no surprise if our schools began to resemble prisons.

And why not, one could argue, given the statement that was issued in the wake of the Charsadda attack by the TTP vis-à-vis its intentions about those attending places of learning. The distinction is important: schools have been blown up in various parts of the country for years, so that the phenomenon became, in a way, old news. Malala and her colleagues were shot; but now the threat level has escalated to a new level altogether.

Ramping up security at and fortifying the boundaries of educational institutions has become necessary, as has perhaps the need to enter into difficult conversations with young people who should have no truck with weaponry. But this situation raises other distressing talking points as well. It is appalling that children, especially younger ones, walk into school under the shadow of snipers and gunmen. The presence of weapons on campuses, whether in the hands of guards or teachers, raises the possibility of accidental shootings, a few such cases having already occurred over the past year. The heads of students and teachers should be filled with possibilities, but not the possibility of an armed assault.

Add to these terrible difficulties the more prosaic ones: educational institutions must be protected, and it is primarily the responsibility of the state apparatus to achieve this (including engineering a peaceful environment). But clearly, dismantling the militant/terrorist network is a painful, long-drawn-out task, having been allowed by no less than the state itself to grow to such monstrous proportions. Meanwhile, there is a limit to how many law-enforcement personnel can be pulled off the street and deputed outside schools and colleges.

Institutions have been instructed to ramp up their own fortifications, including metal-detection gates, barbed wire and trained guards; in recent days alone, over 230 have been ordered shut for failing to come up to standards. But most schools do not have the resource-margin to achieve this, and there is a limit too on how much of the cost can be passed on to those paying the school fees.

In the foreseeable future, Pakistan’s schools might look less like places of learning and more like maximum-security prisons; it is no exaggeration to say that they are under siege.

There is a precedent, though, of sorts. During the 1971 war, because of the threat of air raids, students were made aware of what it meant to be at war; they underwent evacuation drills, and many learned emergency response and first aid techniques as well. Several institutions saw trenches dug on their premises.

Trenches will do no good in Pakistan’s current war. But perhaps there is benefit in the state and citizenry, no less than the defence forces themselves, recognising in this new, escalated, phase of conflict a threat to the country’s future existence that is as formidable as a traditional assault of occupation by a rival power.

The rhetoric so far has been that Pakistan is mainly alright, there’s just a problem of militancy that needs to be sorted out. But Pakistan is the opposite of alright, and the threat is greater than it has ever before been in nearly seven decades, more so because it comes from within and carries no badge of the enemy.

If this were recognised, we might produce the sort of pressure needed to force those at the helm and the defence forces to undertake a permanent sea change in policy in addition to dealing with the threat as it exists now.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2016