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Boy's Suicide Over School Uniform Shocks Pakistan

Boys attend a class at a school in a tribal agency in Pakistan's rugged northwest, where the goverment's battle with militants has destroyed the local econmy.
Boys attend a class at a school in a tribal agency in Pakistan's rugged northwest, where the goverment's battle with militants has destroyed the local econmy.
SHAHBQADAR, Pakistan -- Kamran Khan was only 13 when he stood outside his impoverished family's home 10 days ago, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself on fire.

The reason: his family could not afford to buy him a new school uniform.

Kamran died on March 30, lying in an army-run hospital with burns covering 65 percent of his body.

Now, his death leaves the town of Shabqadar, two hours northwest of Peshawar, trying to understand why he took his life over a set of clothes.

But it also underlines how much children from poor families in Pakistan's Pashtun areas need assistance to stay in school.

Shabqadar, on the border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Pakistan's tribal agencies, is in a region whose economy has all but collapsed in recent years amid Islamabad's war with militant groups. The upheaval has left many poor families unable to pay school costs.

Kamran's family was struggling to stay afloat. His laborer father found it ever harder to find work in Shabqadar as refugees fleeing fighting in neighboring Mohmand Agency have swollen the town's population over recent years.

Four months ago, the father, Ijaz Gul, raised money from relatives and went to Saudi Arabia. He hoped to use his visa for an umrah, or small religious pilgrimage to Mecca, to stay illegally and find work. But unable to secure a job and quickly send money home, Gul's move left Kamran's mother alone to support the family with her wages as a maid.

WATCH: Classmate says Kamran 'wanted to serve his country'
Classmate: Pakistani Boy 'Wanted To Serve His Country'
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0:00 0:00:55 0:00

Desperate To Stay In School

Still, the family hoped that by keeping Kamran and his older brother in school it could pull itself out of poverty.

Shakirullah, the principal and owner of Mohmand Education Academy, where Kamran studied, says the boy was at the top of his class. But one day, Kamran stopped coming to school. Later, Shakirullah was shocked to see the boy wandering around town picking up scraps of metal to sell.

"At a point, he quit the school in class 4. He used to work as scrap collector. Then I came across him one day and asked him to join the school. But he said he couldn't pay the school fee. Then I asked him to join the school without any fee," Shakirullah says.

But even that offer was not enough. Students at private schools, as well as at tuition-free state schools, still have to buy their own school uniforms and books. It was Kamran's inability to get a new uniform, when his own was embarrassingly in tatters, that proved one hurdle too many.

Kamran's brother, Salim Khan, says the boy pleaded with his mother to buy him a new uniform, a white shalwar kameez. But while his mother sympathized, she repeatedly told him the family didn't have the money. Finally, she lost her patience and slapped him.

Kamran threatened to kill himself if his parents could not buy him the uniform. Then he did. "He asked me for a school uniform and said he had no other clothes," his mother, Shahana Bibi, says. "Then he said this life was absurd. Then he set himself on fire. That was a difficult time."

WATCH: Salim Khan says the doctors didn't treat his brother well:
Brother Of Pakistani Boy: 'Doctors Didn't Treat Him Well'
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Help Comes Too Late

The boy's death was a blow to parents who already had lost one child to poverty. Kamran's mother gave away her fifth child as a baby because they could not afford to raise her. With two sons and two other daughters already, the family had reached the limit of its means.

Kamran's death is doubly tragic because it comes when help for students like him could be on the way.

This month, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province launched a British-funded school-enrollment campaign designed to help 80,000 needy students stay in school through 2015. The project, budgeted at 200 million pounds ($320 million), will pay their tuition fees and provide them a modest stipend. It will also fund construction of new schools.

The project comes too late for Kamran. But at a time when the literacy rate in Pakistan's tribal region is a bleak 17 percent, the economy is in tatters, and poor families can barely afford school, it may at least save other children from the desperation that ended one 13-year-old's life.

Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal's Shah Newaz in Shabqadar and Daud Khattak in Prague