MINGORA, Pakistan – Scores of eager children headed back to school in northern Pakistan's battle-scarred Swat Valley on Saturday, many taking classes in buildings damaged during recent fighting between Taliban militants and security forces.
But attendance on the first day of the new academic year was low, with hundreds of students staying away. Many families have still not returned home to the valley's main town of Mingora, where the Taliban once held sway.
Reopening schools in Swat, a former tourist haven, is just one piece of the puzzle for authorities trying to rehabilitate the valley, but it may be the most symbolic and psychologically important step yet, as destroying schools — particularly those teaching girls — was a key part of the Taliban's reign in the valley.
In one girls' school in the Haji Baba neighborhood of Mingora, only about 30 of the usual 700 students were back on Saturday. But those who were said they were glad to be able to learn again without fear of the Taliban.
"I'm happy. I like school, I like to study," 12-year-old Saima Abdul Wahab said as she stood in a tiny courtyard outside her dusty classroom, piles of new exercise books stacked against the walls waiting to be given out.
Saima said she, like many others, had been too afraid to study when the Taliban controlled the town.
"I was scared and stopped coming to school. The Taliban were slaughtering people. I was scared of being slaughtered," she said. But now, "I'm not afraid of them coming back. They're gone."
At one point, the Taliban had announced they were banning female education completely, in a move echoing their militant brethren in neighboring Afghanistan who forbade girls from going to school when they were in charge.
Nearly 200 schools in Swat and surrounding the area were destroyed, and hundreds more were damaged — most of them girls' institutions.
The havoc threatened to set back literacy and other educational achievements in the valley that — relative to other parts of the conservative northwest — had made strides in education over the past century, including when it was a princely state with its own ruler.
School has been out in Swat since May, leaving large gaps in children's education, teachers say.
"We will have extra classes, put in extra time, forego our vacations, but we will catch up," vowed Noor ul Akbar, who teaches Quran recitation at a nearby boys' school.
About 150 of the school's usual 1,500 boys lined up in the warm early morning sun for assembly that began with a prayer before starting lessons in their bomb-damaged building. The school was struck by an explosion in a shop across the street that had been run by a suspected Taliban militant.
Akbar said at one point, several Taliban had taken over a few rooms in the school. He said teachers had pleaded with them to leave, telling them their guns were scaring the children. The militants had replied that they would only target passing military convoys, he said.
Although Swat's main city is slowly coming back to life, it is nowhere near normal.
Basic amenities such as electricity, gas and running water have been restored, and hospitals are open, but government offices are barely functioning, the courts are shut, and curfews still hamper people's movement.
A small number of traders have returned, but many are still cautiously watching the situation and trying to assess their costs, Abdul Rahim Khan, president of the Swat Traders Association, said earlier this week.
"A lot of damage has been caused to business places and trading offices during the fighting and after that, so the government should quickly compensate their losses," he said.
Tourism, once a key economic engine for the picturesque valley, is still hobbled. A few hotels have reopened — largely to cater to visiting journalists and officials.
Bakhtiar Khan, an official of the tourism department, struck a hopeful note.
"We expect those who have been here before will definitely come back to see how this place changed or destroyed — we are expecting adventure tourists," he said.
The Taliban's top leadership remains at large, and violence persists. On Tuesday, the decapitated body of a police constable was found in Swat's town of Sangota, not far from Mingora. It was a clear sign that the militants have not given up the fight, even though the army says it has killed at least 1,800 suspected insurgents.
Residents say while they have not seen any Taliban in Mingora, relatives in other parts of the valley report militants are still active at night. Many Taliban are believed to have melted into the rural parts of the mountainous valley, and access to the northern half is still restricted.