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Pakistani dreams 'shattered' by Taliban and army

PESHAWAR, Pakistan –  There are no more schools in Charmang, a rural village of mud-brick homes and lush wheat fields nestled in the mountains of Bajaur, a tribal territory, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Taliban are in control now.

 "First, the Taliban imposed a ban on wearing Western-style school uniforms at my private school," said Amjad Ali, a 17-year-old former student from Charmang. "Then they stopped all the girls from attending classes and finally they just blew up the building."

Image: Taliban militants in Bajau
NBC News' Mushtaq Yusufzai
Taliban militants in Bajaur, a tribal territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In Charmang, the Taliban torched and destroyed more than 40 private schools because the students wore Western-style uniforms and learned English. The Taliban also accused the schools' administrators of following a pro-Western curriculum and allowing co-educational classes – in Taliban terms that makes them un-Islamic.

But Saleh Mohammed, Ali's father, was determined to educate all his children. After their school, The Islamia Model School, was destroyed, he brought Ali and his two younger daughters – Shaista and Nafeesa – to the public school in Charmang. Ali's father wanted to ignore the Taliban threats, but the principal of the school was too afraid – he registered Ali but refused to accept the girls.

"The Taliban would come to my public school and deliver lectures about jihad against the infidels, who they said are occupying Afghanistan and will soon invade Pakistan," said Ali.  "Most of my classmates registered for jihad training and would go to their meetings after school." 

Ali explained how things just got worse with time. "Later on the Taliban just took over our school and turned it into a training camp. I refused to join the Taliban, and my family became very afraid, so we left Charmang in the dark one night."

He said he still thinks about Charmang every day. 

"Charmang was so beautiful in those days," he recalled.

"What happened to me and my family was so sudden that I sometimes think I am having a bad dream. My whole world just disappeared," Ali said sadly. "And now I have to live in this tent," referring to the internally displaced persons camp he now lives in with his family outside of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Northwest Frontier Province.

NBC News
NBC News' Mushtaq Yusufzai speaks with Amjad Ali, the tall boy in a red sweater, in an internally displaced persons camp outside Peshawar.

Sandwiched between the Taliban and the army


Last August, the Pakistani military, under pressure from the United States, launched an operation to go after the Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the Bajaur tribal agency, a crucial passageway for fighters who creep over the mountains to attack U.S. forces inside Afghanistan. After months of fierce fighting, the army has been unable to dislodge the hardcore militants who are either entrenched in mountain strongholds or who hide inside a maze of underground tunnels that run into Afghanistan.

The military campaign against a band of some 500 Taliban militants in Charmang terrorized the local villagers. Most of the 80,000 inhabitants who once lived in Charmang have fled. Many of them were farmers who had dual Pakistani-Afghan nationality and frequently crossed over into Afghanistan to sell their produce or visit family members. They kept homes on both sides of the border.

When the villagers felt sandwiched in by the Taliban on one side and the Pakistani army on the other, they left, in the thousands, for Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities said that it was the first-ever migration of Pakistani refugees into Afghanistan. Others went to live as refugees in internally displaced persons camps elsewhere in Pakistan.

No more school or cricket

Adeel Khan, another 18-year-old high school student from Charmang, said he misses his friends and hates living in the refugee camp, the same one Ali ended up in near Peshawar. 

"I used to play football, hockey and cricket at home," Khan said.

"Suddenly there was a war between the government and the Taliban and my family made us leave everything we owned and come here in a hurry. I want to play cricket with my friends and I want to go back to school," he added forlornly.

Khan's father, Abdul Qadir said he spent seven years in the United Arab Emirates driving a taxi to save enough money to give his five children a good education back home in Charmang.

"I wanted all of them, my sons and my daughters, to become doctors and engineers," Qadir said.

"Now, I have lost my home and my bread shop in Charmang," he said. "How can I give them an education when I can't even give them two meals a day?"

Image: Young boys prepare food
Mushtaq Yusufzai/NBC News
Young boys in the Kacha Garhi Refugee Camp outside of Peshawar prepare food.

According to an education official in Khar, the main city of the Bajaur Tribal Agency, there are more than 80,000 students across Bajaur who can no longer go to school. The schools have either been destroyed by the Taliban or occupied by the security forces during the military operations.

In North Waziristan, another Taliban-run tribal area along the Afghanistan border, most of the schools are now closed because of the ongoing violence and the fear of the U.S. drone attacks. The Government Post Graduate College in Miranshah, the main city, once boasted 1,300 students who were studying for degrees in medicine and education.

Bayar Khan Wazir attended the college before it closed. "Today, we have no more schools and we have no recreational facilities," Wazir said. "So most of the students will now join the Taliban," he said.

"We have nothing else to do all day. And perhaps there is a certain charm and power to grow a beard, let your hair grow long and pick up a gun," he said.

Wazir went on to say that Waziristan has become synonymous all over the world with militancy, but many don't know that Pakistan's best doctors, teachers and academics were once trained there.

NBC News
NBC's Mushtaq Yusufzai speaks with Abdul Qadir, the former bread shop owner, in an internally displaced persons camp outside Peshawar.

'All of our dreams are shattered now'

The displaced people of Charmang are angry with the Taliban for occupying their lands but more angry with the Pakistani army for destroying their homes during the campaign against the Islamic extremists.

"I had a big house in Charmang," said Qadir, the bread shop owner.

"Now, seven of us have to live like this," he said, pointing to a small white tent in the Kacha Garhi refugee camp.

 "I have no more dreams," he said. "All of our dreams are shattered now."

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