On July 10, Shahid Choudhary, district commissioner of Rajouri in Jammu province of Jammu and Kashmir, brought much cheer by announcing the launch of Project Tameer which will give buildings to 100 open-sky schools in four months.
He tweeted about the project and congratulated the children of this border district of Jammu. On July 18, almost a week later, the same DC, along with the J&K Police, was trying to save 250 children from three different schools in the Nowshera sector as Pakistan rained down mortar shells upon them.
While children in the rest of the country must have walked, cycled or been driven back home from school that afternoon, the students in Nowshera rode back home in mobile bunkers after being holed up in school for six hours. The timely evacuation before sunset, amid heavy shelling and a narrow escape near Bhawani, was a commendable effort by the local administration, police and the locals.
Among reassuring images of local authorities springing into action to keep the children safe and evacuate them, were the disturbing ones of shell-shocked and distraught children disembarking from bulletproof vehicles. It will take being that parent and being that child to know how traumatic that day must have been as they came in the line of fire yet again.
Important to note is that ceasefire violations - of which border residents are a target - include the direct and indirect use of weapons or prolonged firing of small arms. A single burst of small arms is not regarded as a ceasefire violation but an exchange of fire which goes on for 15-20 minutes is regarded as a serious violation and recorded.
With 228 ceasefire violations along the LoC and 221 along the IB in just 2016, this is the “normal” for the border residents, south of Pir Panjal in Poonch, Mendhar, Nowshera and Akhnoor, where most of the violations have occurred.
An average child might have multiple reasons and time-old excuses to bunk school, but the child of Government Primary School Kadali in Nowshera division of Rajouri, who along with 12 others had a lucky escape, has a solid one - backed by a gaping hole in the roof of his school where a shell landed.
The children of primary schools of Klotra and Kote Dhar, which were closed two days before the fateful day when 10-12 shells landed on the school premises, might not feel lucky enough to want to return to their schools. Others ready to brave it back might not have a functioning school to go back to.
Children cross a dangerous bridge for school in Kashmir. Photo: Reuters
According to UNICEF reports, more than 25 million children between 6 and 15 years of age, or 22 per cent of children in that age group, are missing out on school in conflict zones across 22 countries. We may add India and the children of J&K in that list, who do not have access to an uninterrupted school year.
It is telling that they may not have completed their academic syllabus but know to run to the closest bunker with the first explosion breaking the fragile peace of their region. UNICEF chief of education Josephine Bourne says: “At no time is education more important than in times of war. Without education, how will children reach their full potential and contribute to the future and stability of their families, communities and economies?”
For the sake of our children who live in conflict zones, we must take this on board and design interventions like making provisions for catch-up education, creating informal learning opportunities, training teachers and rehabilitating and refurbishing schools at the earliest. This must be done till we reach a long-term solution. Conflict takes away many things but it must not be allowed to snuff out knowledge too.
A makeshift classroom in Srinagar. Photo: Reuters
This month has been especially hard for our children who, as John F Kennedy said, are our most valuable resource and the best hope for the future. We have seen the image of four minor orphaned girls, shock and confusion marring their innocent countenance, as they sat next to the body of their father, Showket Ali, a territorial Army jawan who was home on leave when a Pakistani shell landed in their kitchen, where he sat breaking bread with his family, and killed both him and his wife.
The wailing daughter of Lance Naik Ranjit Singh asking for one last hug from her martyred father and the grief stricken faces of the children of Naik Mudasser Ahmad of Tral are distressing and raise questions about the future facing our children.
Martyred Lance Naik Ranjit Singh’s children – Kajol and Kartik – hold up his photograph at their residence in Burn village. Photo: PTI
The psychosocial impact of conflict on the children is huge. These children, caught in a proxy war, show increased signs of anxiety about being separated from their families. They may have nightmares and trouble sleeping. Older children may become anxious, feeling hopeless about their future, developing aggressive behaviour. Conflict shakes the very foundations of a stable and secure childhood, destroying homes and fracturing communities.
Children, caught in a proxy war, show increased signs of anxiety about being separated from their families. Photo: Reuters
In addition to the disruption of educational services and breakdown of family structures is the perpetual shadow of fear the children live in. Seeing their parents and important adults in their lives also vulnerable, adversely affects their mental and emotional health. Making it worse is the death they see around them of adults and peers alike.
Every year in the border districts of Jammu region - Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Rajouri and Poonch - children die or are grievously injured due to indiscriminate shelling by Pakistan. No child should live in the fear of death and injury yet the reality is that we have failed in ensuring safety for them.
This week another beautiful, young child was cruelly taken away. More haunting than the image of an eight-year-old Sajida lying cold and dead is the picture of her alive, wearing a bright red kurta, a shy smile playing on her lips. Her lively, big, brown, kohl-lined eyes are arresting and hold us accountable for a promising life she never had.
The important dynamics between children and the social environment cannot be undermined. These children are victims of terror, their childhoods, their right to an education, security and their right to live, all severely compromised.
Conflict takes away their friends, family, livelihood, and home. It strips them off their dignity, identity, pride and hope. The devastating inter-generational impact of a siege that has been 70 years long for the children of this region has a direct consequence on the future and well-being of the state and the nation.
There has to be an end to this and till we reach that end, we must safeguard the fundamental rights of our children and treat them as “zones of peace”. We must call out the dastardly act of Pakistan targeting our schools on every platform, national and international, demanding a counter-action.
However disturbing the stories of dead and maimed children, a 14-month-old Pari, five-year-old Rishabh, 13-year-old Shahnawaaz and eight-year-old Sajida, are, they must be told so that we can effect change and give these children of Jammu and Kashmir a chance at life.