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Tracking Down Mortenson's Schools In Pakistan

Students at CAI's Immit Higher Secondary School pose with some of their school work in April 2011.
Students at CAI's Immit Higher Secondary School pose with some of their school work in April 2011.
Special to RFE/RL

IMMIT, Pakistan -- Strange but true. Greg Mortenson, the author of "Three Cups of Tea," is better known in the United States than in some of the mountainous areas of Pakistan where he claims to build schools.

But if local people don't recognize Mortenson's name, they do know the name of his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). And a recent visit to one valley in Pakistan's remote northwest, near the borders of Tajikistan and China, suggests that here his schools not only exist but function normally.

Radio Mashaal sent a reporter to check on some of Mortenson's schools after a U.S. television investigative show in April reported his Montana-based charity is beset by charges of fraud.

CBS News' "60 Minutes" quoted a private watchdog group as saying that CAI spends more money on publicity in the United States than on building schools abroad. The group, which examines U.S. charitable organizations, also charged that CAI has had only one audited financial report in its 14 years.

Writer and CAI founder Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan (courtesy photo)

At the same time, "60 Minutes" quoted a former associate of Mortensen as saying the best-selling author and mountaineer invented much of the inspirational story he tells to raise funds for building schools in Central Asia.

Mortenson's story describes how he was nursed back to health in a remote Pakistani village after becoming lost while descending K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, and how he repaid this kindness by giving the village its first school. But two porters who accompanied him on the K2 climb in 1993 told the news show that Mortenson was never separated from his climbing party as he claims.

The news show also reported that CAI's tax return for last year listed 141 schools that the charity claimed to have built or supported in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But "60 Minutes" said that when it looked into or visited 30 of the schools, it found "some performing well but roughly one-half were empty, built by someone else, or not receiving support at all."

Mortensen has rejected the allegations of fraud, but the scandal has raised doubts over how many of Mortenson's schools actually exist. The schools stretch across northern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan, and many are located in difficult to reach places, so it is hard for journalists to confirm the truth.

High Praise

Pakistan's Ishkoman Valley, which we visited, is such a place. To reach it, one must travel 24 hours by car from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and up ever-ascending terrain to the northwestern corner of Gilgit-Baltistan, which itself is part of that vast mountainous region dubbed the Roof of the World, Trans-Himalaya.

Much of the way is along the famous Karakorum Highway, which follows the ancient silk route to China, before we branch off at Gilgit to go farther west to the town of Gahkuch and from there farther north to the Ishkoman Valley.

There, where three of the world's most famous mountain ranges meet -- the Himalayas, the Karakorum, and the Hindu Kush -- we start to ask directions.

"Are there any schools built by Greg Mortenson here?" we ask a resident as we enter the hamlet of Immit. The community, home to some 500 families, is supposed to have a CAI-built school.

The resident, Shaukat Ali, gives a blank look. He does not recognize the name, which clearly sounds foreign to his ears.

We ask, instead, if there is any school built by the Central Asia Institute. This time the answer, along with an unprompted endorsement of the CAI's work, comes pouring out.

"I've known about CAI for the past two years, and they set up schools in different areas and run these schools in a good manner," Shaukat Ali offers. "They recruit good teachers and they are doing a good job in the interest of this region."

In fact, the school we are looking for is just a little farther along the road. It is the Immit Higher Secondary School, a seven-room building made of concrete, with a corrugated roof, and surrounded by a spacious green lawn.

'Studying At Their Doorsteps'

Doulat Ali, the head teacher at the secondary school, says the building was constructed in 2001, the same year as the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The money was provided by an EU grant through the Aga Khan Education Service (AKES). But in 2010, the secondary school was expanded by CAI to include a two-year college, the first in the region.

WATCH: RFE/RL correspondent visits the Immit and Majaweer schools:

Two Schools In The Mountains
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The combination of a secondary school and college has revolutionized education in this remote area. One of the students, Jehan Bibi, who comes from a village elsewhere in Ishkoman Valley to study here, says women in particular benefit.

"Our sisters are studying at their doorsteps," Bibi says. "Previously, there was no such possibility."

Many traditional families remain reluctant to send their daughters out of their own villages for schooling, much less out of the region. The fact that this college is still geographically within the local families' extended network of relatives means women can get permission to pursue their studies when otherwise it might be denied.

Khairun Nissa, a teacher at the school, says that the most determined girls tried to study at home while the rest simply stopped studying after finishing their village school.

"Prior to this [school], almost the majority of students had to sit at home and study through tutors and then appear for exams at private schools," Nissa says. "Now it is altogether a different story."

According to the principal of the secondary school, Shah Raees Khan, the CAI remains actively involved with it. He says the charity is establishing a computer lab in the college and pays the tuition fees of at least 15 of the students at the college. He says the CAI has also agreed to pay the school fees of at least 100 students from poor families to attract them to the school.

Making A 'Better Future'

Beyond Immit, the villages in Ishkoman Valley become few and farther apart as the terrain gets steeper and harsher. Some 10 kilometers north of Immit, we come to the village of Majaweer and spot a billboard beside the road. The sign identifies a nearby building as a CAI school and around the building workers are digging a boundary wall. Inside, a group of male and female teachers is taking tea inside a staff room.

Majaweer Village School is noticeably empty of students, but the staff explains that is because the school is currently in recess after holding exams. But there are plenty of signs the single classroom is used regularly. The room is carpeted and the walls are hung with teaching aids divided by discipline: science, arts, music, and history.

Staff pose in front of the Majaweer school in April.

One of the teachers, Zar Wali Shah, says 82 boys and girls study at the school and that there are at least six teachers. He says the CAI pays the teachers' salaries, while the village itself contributed the land for the school and constructed the building. That follows a formula the CAI has frequently used in remote areas to engage local communities in education: the charity provides building materials, books and teachers' salaries, while the community matches the deal with sweat equity.

The school itself is run by a local community association, not the charity itself. The president of the association, Zardosh, tells us that the villagers worked five days to build the school.

"We cannot take land with us when we die," Zardosh says, "so we donated this [parcel] for a better future for the next generations."

He adds that when he and the other adult villagers, who are mostly illiterate, see their children studying, they "think of sacrificing everything for a better future."

'An Angel'

We continue another 15 kilometers up the valley and find another similar story. In Tishnaloot village, there is another CAI school in the village center. It, too, is closed following exams and workmen are busy improving it by building a boundary wall. When it's in session, 60 students attend, taught by two teachers who are paid by the CAI.

Back in Immit, we meet CAI's regional representative, Saeedullah Baig, who is on an inspection tour from Gilgit.

He says that throughout this corner of northwest Pakistan -- the Ghizar district of Gilgit-Baltistan -- there are 19 projects either completed or under way. He also expresses shock at the "60 Minutes" story that raised doubts about the CAI's work.

"We do not do much promotion, but you can see for yourself what we claim to do in any area that is on our list," Baig says.

He adds that personally, for him, Mortenson is not a human "but an angel for me and this region."

Given the difficulty of the terrain, visiting all the schools on Baig's list would take weeks or months. But it is not only the news report that today hangs over the CAI like a cloud. Here in Pakistan, a national Urdu-language internet daily has reported the charity is in trouble for reasons similar to those cited by CBS News' "60 Minutes."

Doubts Will Remain

The daily "K2," named for Pakistan's highest mountain, recently reported that one of Mortenson's first local partners has appropriated some of the CAI's buildings for his own commercial use.

The newspaper says that Ghulam Mohammad Parvhi has taken over one of the CAI schools in Skardu district -- in the west of the sprawling Gilgit-Baltistan region -- and now charges the students tuition when previously they received free education. The paper also reported that in the district capital, Skardu city, he has rented to a university a dormitory building which CAI constructed to house impoverished students.

RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the allegations. But they are in line with charges by the CAI's critics in the United States that the charity's management structure is disorganized and lacks oversight over its many initiatives. According to "K2," Parvhi registered the CAI charity under his own name with the authorities and so is legally free to do what he wants with the properties.

To get to the truth of such charges will require more trips to the Roof of the World and months of digging. But if a pattern in Mortenson's story seems to emerge from this quick ground check, it is a pattern of both successes and failings.

Mortenson has unquestionably built highly appreciated new schools in some of the most inaccessible terrain known to man. To do so, however, he has had to create a chain of trust, between his charity, its local partners, and its donors. The same rugged terrain that makes the work so worthwhile also bedevils it by making oversight exceptionally difficult.

Today, if the CAI seems to have trouble overseeing its activities, so does the public in overseeing the charity. Until journalists -- both in this region and the United States -- can piece together a more complete picture of how well the charity works, the concerns about it are likely to persist.

written by M. Shah, a Peshawar-based journalist in Pakistan