Home Pakistan India The remote school at the centre of a dispute between nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India – ABC News

The remote school at the centre of a dispute between nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India – ABC News

14 min read

It was at the centre of a clash that almost brought two nuclear nations to war, but exactly what goes on inside a small madrasa on a hilltop near Kashmir remains a mystery.

Key points:

  • Tensions escalated sharply between India and Pakistan in February after a suicide bombing in Kashmir
  • Pakistan denies that a remote religious school harbours the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed
  • India said it killed 300 militants in an airstrike in February, but the ABC found no evidence to back this claim

One thing is clear: India’s claim that it destroyed a militant training camp and killed more than 300 extremists cannot be backed up by the evidence.

More than a month after India launched airstrikes inside Pakistan in retaliation for a militant attack that killed 40 paramilitary troops in Kashmir, foreign media have been allowed to see the areas hit.

Among the sites was the madrasa, or religious school, that India says was a cover for the anti-India terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

The visit was orchestrated and tightly controlled by the Pakistan Army, which flew visitors from Islamabad to the mountainous area neighbouring Kashmir on military helicopters.

Dozens of diplomats and defence advisers from countries including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Indonesia and the UK accompanied a handful of foreign journalists, including the ABC.

This was an attempt by Pakistan to prove to the world that it was telling the truth.

“You have seen the craters yourselves, where the bombs were dropped and they just hit the open ground,” Pakistan military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said.

“No casualties. [No damage] to the human bodies, or to the infrastructure.”

“It is just to let the world know what the truth is. This infrastructure, or any other in the surroundings, has not been hit.”

Major General Ghafoor accompanied the foreign visitors as they scaled a mountain to reach the remote madrasa.

‘He said India is our enemy’

Climbing for more than an hour through rocky terrain, not all of the party could make it to the top.

Foreign diplomats took photos and notes as they inspected a large crater in an alpine meadow.

It was one of several ground disturbances that Pakistan claims indicate where India’s bombs fell after their warplanes crossed Pakistani airspace, only to be intercepted by Pakistani jets.

A man in a nearby hut was asleep when the bombs hit.

The Pakistani officers encouraged the foreign journalists to talk to him and stood nearby during the interaction.

He was asked what he thinks of India.

The officer immediately translated into English: “He said India is our enemy”.

In fact the man, who spoke quietly and briefly in Urdu, had said he had never thought about India until now.

The madrasa is tucked away among pine trees at the top of the mountain.

It is the subject of the second set of conflicting narratives between India and Pakistan.

There is a large central schoolroom, a few outhouses and what appears to be a large open space or carpark more than twice the size of the school.

“You have come here for yourself and have seen that it is one of the thousands of education madrasas based on philanthropy inside Pakistan,” Major General Ghafoor said.

Two diplomats privately noted that the location and setup would make it an ideal training camp.

Again, Pakistani officials hovered as the foreign visitors moved through the main classroom.

More than 100 young boys sat chanting passages from the Koran.

There were some older boys in other rooms but the media was ushered away from them.

The visit lasted less than half an hour.

“There is a history to the madrasas in Pakistan,” Major General Ghafoor said.

“Now these madrasas have a history linked to the first Afghan War [against the then Soviet Union], but Pakistan for years and years now, since the [terrorist] organisations have been proscribed, these madrasas are practically not being run by them,” he said.

There are over 30,000 madrasas in Pakistan, and senior military officials told the ABC intelligence suggests that only between 100-200 have extremist links.

In the northern areas where families, have six or more children, parents will often send one or two boys to be schooled in the madrasas, where they get free food and quarters.

Madrasas teach a deeply conservative view of Islam, but the government maintains very few teach militancy.

Pakistan’s move to court foreign press is a bid to demonstrate the state’s success in clamping down on extremism.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power in August last year, he vowed to bring all madrasas under government control and expand the curriculum to include maths, science and English.

In schools where students currently learn only the Koran, he said they would get more skills and have more career options.

Previous governments have tried to quash militant groups but with limited success, and anti-extremist drives are often criticised as being cosmetic, with no lasting impact.

But Pakistan said it had already arrested dozens of people connected to JeM in the wake of the suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Swat transformed after Taliban exiled

The media tour was then flown over the mountain ranges of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in far north Pakistan to reach a place where extremism once flourished but is now mostly dormant.

Swat Valley became synonymous with terrorism when it was overrun by Taliban in 2007.

They killed local leaders and targeted education, especially of girls.

This is the place where Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head on her school bus.

By 2009, the Pakistan Army had reclaimed Swat.

But nearly a decade later, the military has not been able to leave the area because local forces are not able to enforce its security.

There are, however, signs of how much the area has changed.

The Army built a gleaming new school where boys and girls learn in neat white uniforms, play sport and have access to computer labs and music rooms.

Outside, girls were playing a raucous game of badminton.

One of the students, 14-year-old Rumaisa Noor, told the ABC she was born in the USA and had just returned to Pakistan with her family three months ago.

“My mum wanted us to know our culture, know our language,” Noor said.

“There’s a lot of peace and everyone works together.”

Children of the Taliban sent to rehab

The military escorted the foreign observers to one last place — a rehabilitation centre for youths who were recruited by the Taliban.

Usman, who wants to be a doctor one day, can only be identified by a first name because he and his family fear reprisals from militants.

In a uniform with a green tie — the colour for Pakistan’s flag — he stood in an electronics lab where a dozen boys wrangled with cables and switches.

“Before I was involved in terrorism in Afghanistan,” the 16-year-old said.

“When I surrendered to [the] Pakistan Army, they brought us here.”

The success stories of the Swat Valley offer hope that Pakistan wants to and can expel extremism from its cities and villages.

But it will need to prove to that it is dismantling all terror groups — ranging from the Taliban, to extremists training for jihad in disputed Kashmir, the epicentre of geopolitical tensions between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan is again on the verge of being added to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist for financing terrorism, a move that would crush its already crippled economy.

It wants to show the world it is serious about wresting extremist groups out of the country’s education system and cutting off their financial channels.

For Pakistan, showing the world it can dispel the lingering shadow of militancy means it can start to recuperate its economy.

For the young girls of Swat, that shadow could be the difference between living freely and living in fear.

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