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Pupils Return Where Their Peers Have Fallen

Pakistani officials implore students to come back to schools devastated by quake.

November 19, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

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

At 10 minutes to 9 a.m. on an overcast Nov. 12, 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 with 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 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, amid wariness among many parents, school has started once again in this town that sits atop the epicenter of the Oct. 8 quake that killed about 87,000 people and left 3.2 million others homeless.

Officials estimate that children constitute half the earthquake's death toll. Across the earthquake zone in the Pakistani-controlled portion of 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 snowcapped 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 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 principal 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 Pakistani 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 the individual burial plots of 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."

In one classroom on the recent Saturday morning, 15 boys took turns reading in English as Rahman looked on. Most youths shivered in the chill, huddling at desks arranged on a bare concrete floor, beneath a hastily erected lesson board and a map of Pakistan.

But classes were cut short. Rahman dispatched the boys to visit tent camps to try and coax their classmates back to the school.

Rahman, 50, is a stubborn optimist. He sat in the courtyard with several teachers carrying grade books. He plans to eventually invite a psychologist to speak to students. But the 15-year administrator is anxious for things to return to normal.

"We're already talking to these boys," said Rahman, whose son was severely injured in the school collapse. "We're telling them to forget the incident. We want them to start their studies with the same zeal they had before."

He referred to a flood in 1992 that killed hundreds of local residents.

"Most people here have already forgotten about that calamity," he said. "Of course, this one was more horrific. It will take more time to forget. But these boys are resilient. They will move on. They have to move on."

For Naseeb, forgetting his best friend, Liqat, is an impossible assignment.

For 10 years the two boys had made the three-hour round-trip hike to school from their village in the hills, negotiating the winding rocky paths where goats bleated and munched on wild grass.

They talked about school lessons and their goals in life: Naseeb wants to be a teacher. Liqat set his sights on becoming a doctor.

Liqat's father, a farmer, has already come to collect his son's body, which is buried near the family home. Naseeb has gone there often in the weeks after the quake, lingering to talk to the old man and visit his friend's grave.

When school resumed, he made the long downhill trek by himself -- the first of many such solitary walks to come.

"I thought about Liqat all the way," he said. "There are things I want to tell him."

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