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Karachi Schools Close In Fear Of Violence

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as students leave school in Karachi
More than 50 schools in Pakistan's commercial capital have had to close their doors this year because teachers and students fear communal violence.

It doesn't matter that the schools are usually in mixed communities and in many of them students from different backgrounds mix easily. Today, the students sit at home because their elders fight.

Irfanullah, a 9th-grade Pashtun student, says he has many friends at school from the city's majority native Urdu-speaking Mohajir community. But even that is not enough to protect him:

"I have very many friends, and my classmates ask me why I am not attending school," he says. "I've told them about my concerns and problems as well. I've also asked them if they can take responsibility for safeguarding me. But they are reluctant, saying that if they protect me then they will be targeted and beaten up."

Irfanullah lives in the majority Pashtun neighborhood of Qasba Colony. But his school is located in a nearby Urdu-speaking locality. The trouble began when students and their parents began receiving warnings, including from men standing near the school gates, about not crossing communal lines. They were told the children would be harmed.

The parents took the warnings seriously because thousands have already died in Karachi from communal violence, including some 100 in the most recent outbreak of street fighting in July. At least 22 of the victims over the past six months have been children.

Criminal Groups And Targeted Killings

Much of the violence pits Pashtuns, who have migrated to the city in recent decades against Mohajirs who arrived in Karachi with the partition of India in 1947 and today compose the city's largest ethnic group.

The major political parties of both groups use armed wings, including criminal groups, to battle for influence, patronage, and territory. Targeted killings are commonplace.

A Pakistani policeman evacuates a young Pashtun child from a troubled area of Karachi early last month.

As Irfanullah sits at home, so does his Mohajir classmate and friend Mohammad Bilal. The two students have not seen each other for months:

"Due to fear we are not going to school, because every day there are incidents of firing and the situation is not good," says Bilal. "Now, I can only talk over the phone with my friends. We can't meet face to face now; since the situation got worse I haven't met them."

Pakistan's "Express Tribune" newspaper recently reported that some 30,000 students are now sitting at home in Karachi instead of attending the "melting pots" the city's schools are meant to be. Many teachers do the same.

Muhammad Sajid, a Pashtun teacher, originally came to Karachi from the Mohmand Agency district in Pakistan's tribal area in search of a good job. He had one, until men began threatening him as he walked home from his school.

Climate Of Fear

"Two or three incidents happened where I was stopped and taken hostage on my way home," he says. "I had to plead for my safety and make a phone call to the head of my school and request that he talk to them."

"I told them I came to this area only for teaching and have no other activities there. When they stopped and questioned me two or three times like that, I grew scared, and feared one day they'd stop me forever."

In Pakistan, teachers usually enjoy great esteem. But that respect seems to be gone in many parts of Karachi today as the Pashtun-based Awami National Party (ANP) and the Mohajir-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) -- battle almost daily for turf.

A third party also engages in the tussle: the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which is based in the historically indigenous Sindhi-speaking population of Karachi and its surrounding province.

Amid the power rivalries, ordinary citizens of this cosmopolitan city do what they can to cope. In some cases, they have opened private schools in homes when the neighborhood state schools close their doors.

Peace Schools

Abdul Waheed Khan, who runs an NGO called Bright Education Society, has opened two such schools. One is in Qasba Colony, the other is in an Urdu-speaking area.

"Bright Education Society has its own strategy in this regard," he says. "We are establishing living-room schools or you can call them street schools. We are going to start some 100 schools as soon as possible; there will be one teacher for 60 students. We already started two schools, and we have named them Peace Schools."

Khan knows that such efforts are a poor substitute for state schools and he hopes the children will soon return to their real classrooms.

But he is also taking another step which, if nothing else, symbolizes the size of the problems peace-loving citizens face.

He has begun a campaign to persuade neighborhood stores to remove toy guns from their shelves. While rival gangs fire real weapons in the streets, he hopes to keep the children from emulating their behavior.

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