WATCH: Children at the Khpal Kor Foundation orphanage in Pakistan's Swat District, which has become a lifeline for hundreds of children orphaned or separated from their parents following a massive military operation in the region.
By Shaheen Buneri
MINGORA, Pakistan -- The worn-out burqa covering her from head to toe fails to conceal Rekhmina's sense of loss and uncertainty.
This mother of four has come to the Khpal Kor Foundation, an orphanage located in Swat District's largest city, Mingora, in the belief that it offers the best chance of keeping her children off the streets.
To gain admission for her three daughters and one son, however, she must answer the very question she has spent months trying to answer herself: "Where is your husband?"
Muhammad Ali, principal of the Khpal Kor Foundation, poses the question. The orphanage, supported by local philanthropists and organizations, has become a lifeline for hundreds of children orphaned or separated from their parents when the Pakistani government launched a massive military operation in Swat Valley in the spring of 2009.
The operation was intended to sweep militants loyal to Pakistani Taliban commander Mullah Fazlullah from the scenic but restive region of northwest Pakistan. But as Ali notes, there were many innocent victims.
"There has been a 15-20 percent increase in the number of orphans in Swat after the war," he says. And with this come fears that unless a way can be found to mend their lives, they face a future of crime, or worse, as militants.
No Father, No Future
"In the context of Pashtun society, real orphans are those who have lost their fathers," Muhammad Ali explains as we walk toward the main building of the orphanage.
In traditional Pashtun society, males are responsible for all of their family's expenses. When a male family member is lost, the social and economic status of the family is weakened.
As a result, many families are no longer able to cover the most basic expenses for books and clothes. And even if children are properly equipped, the destruction of hundreds of schools in Swat leaves them with no place to study.
Swat District, and the broader Malakand Region of which it is a part, was devastated by the 2009 operation. After the military declared victory within a few short months, 3 million displaced persons returned to see their former lives in ruins.
A survey conducted by the Khpal Kor Foundation in urban areas of Swat District alone revealed that 700 boys and girls, aged four to 12, had been left fatherless and at the mercy of a society shattered by conflict and humanitarian and natural crises.
Ali explains that his orphanage houses children orphaned when family members were killed by the Taliban, and those whose fathers and brothers were targeted by the military as Taliban militants.
The Khpal Kor Foundation provides 180 students with an education, food, and shelter. Of these, 37 lost fathers to combat action in Swat. The rest lost family members to bomb explosions, police violence, or even to sunstroke as they waited in line for hours for humanitarian aid.
Six-year-old Hamza tells how his father, a fruit seller who often plied his trade in Mingora, was killed by the Taliban.
"He was on his way home," Hamaz explains forlornly. "In the town of Dargai the Taliban intercepted the vehicle and shot him dead."
The Taliban ordered him to step out of the vehicle for inspection. He delayed, and they shot him. This was the account given to him by his mother.
Ten-year-old Shoib Zada hails from Khwazakhela, a village in Swat. His uncle was a Taliban commander well known by locals and security agencies for his militant activities.
As government troops entered the district, Shoib's uncle fled, but left his family vulnerable. When security forces conducted house to house searches, Shoib's father, a farmer who had serious differences with his brother and his militant activities, was arrested.
"Later on we were informed that my father had been killed by the military," Shoib says. He cries while recalling his father's death. But he quickly composes himself and says he would forgive the killers if it meant the fighting would end.
The Sword Cuts Both Ways
Every child at the orphanage is encouraged tell their stories. But opening their hearts is not easy, even with the help of two psychologists hired by the orphanage to provide support.
"They cry, faint, and are unable to concentrate on their studies," says psychologist Niaz Muhammad, 35, who has worked with the children for 1 1/2 years. "You can build houses and schools, but the wounds from the violence will take a long time to heal."
Muhammad says some children exhibit aggressive behavior and seek to avenge their loss.
He cites the example of a child whose father was killed by the Taliban right before his eyes.
The child, he says, exhibits great enthusiasm to learn military skills. In a very short time, Muhammad says, the boy became commander of the school assembly.
"He strikes his feet very forcefully on the ground during the parade to express his crushed emotions," the psychologist observes.
For the children who are accepted into Khpal Kor Foundation, or a handful of similar orphanages, there is at least a chance. Less so for hundreds of Swat's orphans of war who are forced to eke out an existence on the streets, scavenging through garbage for food or paper to sell.
Caught In The Crossfire
Rekhmina, the mother or four, is aware of the opportunity offered by the orphanage, and is intent on convincing Ali to admit her children. But first she must answer the question: "Where is your husband?"
She explains that before government troops moved in, she and her children fled Mingora, leaving her husband behind.
His job as a watchman for a government-run girls' school would have placed him at great risk. Even before the operation, schools were a popular target for Taliban militants.
Once the operation began, many civilians were caught up in the crossfire.
"I asked the military officials, and they say he is not in their custody," Rekhmina says. "My neighbors suspect he might have been killed in the conflict."
Life on their own has been difficult. She pleads to Ali that she and her children must share a single room, and depend on others to provide them with alms to pay for rent and other expenses.
"I am tired of searching for my husband," she says. "In the past two years I have heard nothing from him. He is dead to us."
"I just want my children to be educated," she concludes, in a wavering voice.
But Ali has to refuse. There is noting he can do without a death certificate.
Shaheen Buneri is a Prague-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. He recently concluded a month-long reporting trip to Pakistan under a fellowship with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.