Scores of eager children headed back to school in northern Pakistan's battle-scarred Swat Valley on Saturday, many taking classes in buildings damaged during recent fighting between Taliban militants and security forces. But attendance on the first day of the new academic year was low, with hundreds of students staying away. Many families have still not returned home to the valley's main town of Mingora, where the Taliban once held sway.
Reopening schools in Swat, a former tourist haven, is just one piece of the puzzle for authorities trying to rehabilitate the valley, but it may be the most symbolic and psychologically important step yet, as destroying schools _ particularly those teaching girls _ was a key part of the Taliban's reign in the valley.
In one girls' school in Mingora, in the Haji Baba neighborhood, only about 30 of the usual 700 students were back on Saturday. But those who were said they were glad to be able to learn again without fear of the Taliban.
"I'm happy. I like school. I like to study," 12-year-old Saima Abdul Wahab said as she stood in a tiny courtyard outside her dusty classroom, piles of new exercise books stacked against the walls waiting to be given out. Saima said she, like many others, had been too afraid to study when the Taliban controlled the town.
“I was scared and stopped coming to school. The Taliban were slaughtering people. I was scared of being slaughtered,” she said. But now, “I'm not afraid of them coming back. They're gone.” But while they no longer control Swat, militants still launch attacks. A bomb early Saturday destroyed part of a girls' school in the district of Bannu, neighboring Pakistan's lawless tribal region along the Afghan border, police said.