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By Abdur Rauf Yousafzai
TORKHAM, Afghanistan – Every day, just before dawn and after prayer and breakfast, groups of young Afghan boys dressed in red uniforms start their 20-plus kilometer-long journey to a school across the border in Pakistan.
Their Pakistani colleagues hug and greet them each morning at the front of the school situated along the mountainous region. These are children who are especially enthusiastic about changing the futures of their countries.
“We want to change the lives of my country-people and to convince Afghanis to fight with the pen rather than the bullet,” said Sher Rahman, a 9th grader who attends the border school and makes the long trek to reach it.
Like Rahman and his friends, scores of young boys journey across the Afghanistan border to Pakistan for schooling. Since Afghanistan went to war, much of the country’s educational infrastructure has completely shut down, forcing many Afghan children who seek an education to travel to Pakistan.
Rahman must cross a river two times a day during his travels to and from school. He said he appreciates the Afghan government’s provision of several boats that allow students to cross the river.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share a border that stretches for more than 2,500 kilometers. This consists of an imaginary boundary known as the Durand Line, which was created by the British government in 1893, dividing Afghanistan and British India. But due to the social and cultural bonds shared between people living on both sides of the border, it has never been completely closed.
The Pak International School, which takes its name from the fact that students at the school come from two different countries, is situated at a remote outpost at the western end of the Khyber Pass, a mountainous channel that connects Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, the majority of students at the school are from Afghanistan.
Where on the one hand the open border allows the free movement of Taliban aggressors between the two countries, complicating diplomatic relations between them, the private school at Torkham seems to offer a ray of hope for both countries in their move towards a peaceful coexistence.
The school is situated in the middle of a dry mountain range which has been the site of conflict ever since the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which raged for almost a decade, ending in 1989. During this period, thousands of Afghan citizens fled the country for Pakistan. The area held and continues to hold strategic importance for militias, and once served as a stronghold for top Taliban leaders as well as members of Al-Qaeda under the direction of Osama bin Laden.
But today, the climate here is a bit safer, such that it allows the school to start the day with Afghan children attending classes waving the Pakistani flag and singing the country’s national anthem alongside their Pakistani classmates. Students from both countries also wear a single uniform, without any distinctions made based on caste, creed or nationality.
The Pak International School also offers an education that fosters reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between the two neighboring countries, standing in sharp contrast to the saber rattling that continues between Islamabad and Kabul.
There are approximately 500 students enrolled at the school, about 300 of whom journey from across the border. The students come to Pak International without any documents or official permission to enter Pakistan, and leave in the afternoon with newly acquired knowledge.
“It is my passion to provide education to the war-ragged people,” said Abdur Raziq Shinwari, the school’s principal. “It is due to a lack of resources that I cannot entertain girls here in the same place,” he said, adding that when the school first opened, Afghans showed a significant interest in attending compared to Pakistani students.
Shinwari added that the high enrollment rate at the school is a legacy of Afghans based in refugee camps, who left their homeland for Pakistan after the Russian invasion but left many of their children still living in Afghanistan. “Our students hail from Jalalabad, Nangarhar, Logar and Parwan and other cities of Afghanistan,” Shinwari added.
However, due to the remoteness of the area, Shinwari said there is a shortage of educational resources along the border region, which creates both a challenge and a public demand for the school. As a consequence, Pak International takes in a high number of students hungry for an education. The enrollment rate at the school is unprecedented, Shinwari added.
Beyond simply providing an education to young Afghans and Pakistanis, Pak International acts as a symbol of shared culture, norms and traditions that would likely endure even should added security such as walls and bolstered checkpoints be added to the Durand Line. The traditions shared between the two nations have long remained strong and help promote friendly diplomacy between the countries.
It is difficult to imagine how Pakistan and Afghanistan could be divided when one witnesses children from both nations shaking hands and hugging one another each morning. Despite any tension between the two countries, Shinwari said he keeps his school’s focus on the education of his students, not on political dealings between Kabul and Islamabad, be they positive or negative.
“There is no such schooling system like the one we have here across the border,” said Rahman. The Afghan government has established schools, he added, but instability in the country means that getting a proper education is often difficult.
Like many Afghans who attend Pak International, Rahman believes the benefits offered by the school outweigh the difficulties in having to travel far to get there. But the Afghan students who attend, Rahman added, are especially enthusiastic about attending a school that is ahead of its time in promoting what he calls a “modern education.”
Even with students at Pak International largely content with their educations, security in the border region is fragile, and the lives of the teenagers who travel through it are constantly at risk.
“We have grown accustomed to the dangers on our way to school, said Izzat Ullah, a student at Pak International. Ullah recalled one instance when Pakistani security forces decided to fence the border in an attempt to stop cross-border infiltration. “They opened fire at the Taliban,” said Ullah. “We also came under fire but luckily we made an escape.”
Ullah added that Pakistani security forces will not usually stop students from crossing the border, but when NATO officials or high-profile Pakistani officials visit the area, border security is tighter and students usually have to wait longer at checkpoints before being allowed to cross.
“In November 2013 on the Pakistani side a suicide attack happened near the border gate at Torkham Custom House,” said journalist Waheedullah Afridi. “In December, on the Afghan side about 300 yards away from Pakistan an Afghan Taliban opened fire and then blew himself up at the Afghan Intelligence Office,” he added.
Even with the risks involved in traveling the border area, for many students, the rewards in completing school are especially great. “After [students] complete their education they are not only acceptable throughout Afghanistan but the certificates also guarantee them handsome jobs in Afghanistan,” said Haroon Shinwari, who works with an international humanitarian organization based in Kabul and completed his education in Pakistan.
Ever since Afghanistan’s educational sector became extremely fragile with the advent of war, Shinwari believes that certificates from Pakistani schools are accepted without question in Afghanistan. Otherwise, he said, tensions remain present between the two countries.
Although Pak International provides a valuable service to Afghans, it fails to provide an education to young girls, possibly due to the looming threat of Taliban militants in the area and the long distance students have to travel to reach the school. Another culprit is the fact that Pak International lacks the resources to be able to hold separate classes for male and female students, which would be deemed necessary because of cultural practices and co-ed classes being considered taboo.
Syed Irfan Ashraf, a teacher with the University of Peshawar who is knowledgeable about tribal affairs in the border region, having grown up there himself, said that there is a tendency to think that there is significant terrorist activity in the border region. He added that many in the region see an education as a chance to improve their status and live a better life.
“These people need opportunity and they are eager to get education for changing their backwardness into prosperity,” said Ashraf of those living in the border region. “They want to see themselves on par with the settled areas of the country.”
Meanwhile, children who grow up in the tribal regions are unnecessarily exposed to violence, with weapons and fighting being a legacy of foreign intervention in the region. “By nature,” said Ashraf, residents in these areas “want peace and are eager to see a positive social change in the tribal environment.”
According to Ashraf, almost five million people live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “They are looking for development and they are thirsty to convert their experiences and education into developmental changes,” he said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan may be two different countries, with separate constitutions and a tense relationship, but tense politics means little to the people living on both sides of the Durand Line. They share the same language, cultural backgrounds and have long maintained close bonds with one another. After many Afghans migrated to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Kabul, many Pakistanis and Afghans married. Today, many Afghans and Pakistanis living in the border region are blood relatives.
Neither international policies nor the diplomatic relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan stands to break these bonds. It is likely that many Afghans and Pakistanis would continue to cross over the border even if more security was added to the region or tensions escalated between the two countries, given the history of relaxed policies on border crossings and the close relationships between many living in the area. Meanwhile, promoting the education of Pakistanis alongside Afghans only stands to bolster the positive relationship between two already tightly knit communities.
Ashraf rightly points out that when the political identity of any society is threatened, it is the culture, heritage and traditions of the people that protects them against complete obliteration.
Likewise, it is the thousand-year-old relationship between the communities of both Pakistan and Afghanistan that have brought their youngest generations together for a noble cause that stands to end political turmoil between the two countries in the future.
In the meantime, Principal Shinwari has appealed to both governments to provide either boarding or transport facilities to Pak International’s students that will support them in their travels to and from school and reduce the risk of them coming under attack from militants or security forces along the border.
Rahman said that although the journey to a proper education is long, it pales in comparison to “the dark years” that Afghanistan has faced. “I am sure,” he said, that “the upcoming Afghan educated generation could change the fortune of the entire nation and Afghanis could be again on their peaceful and cultured soil.”
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar, Pakistan. His work has appeared in the Daily Telegraph, online publication Global Post, Dutch newspaper Daily Trouw and The Daily Express.