DRM Exclusive: Internet Shutdown in former FATA – Online classes a hurdle to right to education of students in the region

Translated by Hija Kamran | Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Urdu version of the story here.

Since Covid-19 has engulfed the entire world, education institutes in Pakistan are closed just like in the rest of the world. And with them, the schools in North Waziristan, which were setup after a lot of struggle, had to be shut as well. Since the closure of these institutes across the nation, those students from North Waziristan who were studying in other cities had to return home. And ever since the government of Pakistan has announced moving classes to online lectures, many students in Waziristan are puzzled because if the government has really decided for classes to move online, then it’s certain that students in Waziristan could not be able to participate in these lectures.

This is because even though the world is moving towards advanced technology, the two areas of Waziristan – Mir Ali and Miran Shah – have recently gotten a connection with one of the private cellular companies. But even then the idea of the internet connectivity is still unknown to this region. Broadband internet is available only on select government-controlled premises, but the advanced mobile internet like 3G and 4G remain unavailable. This is why there’s no expectation of relief from online classes for students in Waziristan.

This could be one of the reasons why, under the banner of Youth of Waziristan, the young students started protesting against restrictions on internet access in Mir Ali.

Shams-Uddin, a postgraduate student of Zoology from Sargodha University, who participated in the protest, said, “We are left with no other choice, because we’ll be left behind when the rest of the students are studying online. How do we fill this void?”

He further said that he had acquired education to this level after a lot of struggle, and he doesn’t want that “all the other students in the country are getting education, but we’re only waiting for access.”

In the past, when the government announced that anyone who seeks to get education can get admission in any school closer to them. Shamsuddin says that he decided to take advantage of this situation and got himself enrolled in a school in Bannu, and he’s thankful that he’s doing Masters now. He says, “But today, I don’t see any progress in my future, because not just the internet but we’re not even given access to communication channels [during lockdown].”

He added, “I feel that the government doesn’t want us to get education, otherwise providing internet access to us isn’t a problem for them.” Shamsuddin continued his story, and I kept listening to him because I didn’t have any answer to his plea.

Before the recent wave of extremism, the situation of access to basic necessities was not as bad in North Waziristan as it is now. There was a competition among young students to get education; the area had a good telephone network connectivity; bazaars were populated, and education institutions were continuously witnessing an increase in the number of students. Then the Taliban took over the region, and everything was destroyed.

Another student who participated in the protest, and wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, shared, “I had a digital telephone connection in my home, but then Taliban tied the wires in my village with a tractor and ripped them off that resulted in the network disruption in the village. They must have sold those wires later. Since then. We don’t have telephone or other means of communication in the area.” He expressed that maybe the authorities also don’t want them to have access to communication channels, “because nobody confronted the people who disrupted the wires even though everyone knew who the criminals were.”

The protestors from Youth of Waziristan were wearing masks as a safety precaution against Covid-19, and were constantly trying to keep a safe distance from each other but were then not able to keep up with these precautions, and gathered at one of the roundabouts in the form of a rally. This is where the former president of Youth of Waziristan, Noor Islam Dawar, address the crowd and laid his demands to the government that it immediately restore internet connectivity in the region.

Noor Islam also hinted that the students had started taking interest in education again after the operation, Zarb-e-Azb, and although closing down schools is a necessity right now, but inaccessibility of internet is not a compulsion.

Ahsan Dawar, a local journalist, wrote in one of his articles that over 110,000 students from North Waziristan have lost their education, out of which most students have left education for good to work as a labourer in order to earn a living.

According to Ahsan Dawar, “Since the day Zarb-e-Azb began, our education system hasn’t been able to recover resulting in an entire generation to be deprived of education. Ironically, no one has even realised it yet.”

Although the education officer of that time, Gul Khan, said that 86,000 students are out of school because of the operation, apart from paperwork and constant reminders in the media, no one took the plight of these students to restore the broken stream in North Waziristan seriously.

Many other members of Youth of Waziristan participating in the protest expressed their reservations around internet shutdown in the region. The current president, Asadullah Shah, expressed that how will we compete with the developed countries of the world when we’re still protesting for basic rights like education, access to information, freedom of expression, and healthcare when in fact the state doesn’t care about our struggles.”

A young social activist, Saneed Ahmed, shared that, “the government doesn’t want 3G and 4G for us, but wants Yes and No from us. Instead of being free citizens, they want a population of helpless people standing in lines for their basic necessities who beg for their rights and don’t protest.” He further said that internet and mobile connectivity gives awareness to people, but the authorities want us to remain unaware because otherwise what could be the problem if we get our basic rights.

The worsening situation of education in North Waziristan is not a secret, and the conversation around internet access in this context keeps originating from time to time. As a local journalist, a representative of the Pushto branch of Radio Free Europe, Mashal Radio, and as the president of the Waziristan Union of Journalists, I would like to add that the only source of information for the people of Waziristan is the radio. Some people also read newspapers, but that too when they can find one.

According to one estimate, 90 percent of the people in Waziristan turn to radio to get news updates because there is no other option available for them to access news. Take coronavirus, for example. A remote tribal area in the region has some information about the spread of the virus, but their source of information is only the radio. I conducted a survey in my area to gather information on the level of awareness people have about coronavirus. Unlike the rest of the world where sources of information are either television or social media, people here keep themselves informed through radio.

Whenever we report about the inaccessibility of the internet, we try to get the opinion of local officials in the region so we could do better reporting, but most of the time we don’t get any concrete response from them.

There is an established culture here that the officials posted in this region do not talk to the media. Whenever we called an official to take authorities’ point of view, we never received a clear response from them. I don’t know what is the reason behind this, but some people claim it’s because of the security because in their opinion, the political situation in the region has not been stabilised yet.

Until May 2018, the tribal region including North Waziristan was under the British colonial law that was called Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Under this law, a political agent was posted in all seven agencies of the tribal region who had unprecedented powers, and they used to assert these powers with no accountability.

Ahsan Dawar, a local journalist, and also the general secretary of the Waziristan Union of Journalists, says, “There was no concept of fundamental human rights in this region. People would only get those rights that were in accordance with the will of the political agents. That is why tribal regions are deprived of some very basic necessities, which also include the internet.”

He further said, “It has only been around two years since the tribal regions have been made part of Pakistan, and the Constitution of Pakistan has been extended in this area, but the situation hasn’t been changed much. It could be the effects of extremism in the region, or there could be another reason as well. But one thing is certain, people are more aware now and they also expect more. And this is why people are now protesting peacefully for their demands, and this is the sign of increasing awareness among them.”

Where the entire world is worried about the spread of COVID-19, people in North Waziristan and the rest of the tribal region are not fully aware about the virus because they are not receiving information the way the rest of the country is getting, where every person has access to an Android phone and has 3G and 4G connected that allows them to access updates every minute.

Gul Zaman, a resident of Madakhel – a remote area in North Waziristan, is a teacher at a local school and holds a Masters in History from Peshawar University. According to him, “When I listen to the radio, I’m able to get some form of information. But if I don’t get the chance to listen to the radio, I won’t be able to get updates on world affairs because I don’t have any other source of information.” He adds, “I personally think that the government needs to think through it more seriously, because we also want success and access to information is our fundamental right. That is why I think there should be no compromise on the access to the internet.”

Gul Zaman says, “When I’m in the university, I get updates on every second. But when I return home, I lose connection with the world.” He further shares that if we have the internet in our hometown, then we can be able to access information all the time.

While recording a program about Covid-19 in Waziristan, a local resident named Muhammad Daraz told me that he has adopted all precautionary measures to prevent the contamination of the virus. But due to the lack of concrete information among other residents, he is constantly at risk. A man shook hands with him, hugged, then blew on his face, and said that your faith is weak. Muhammad Daraz says that a lot of people are still taking the virus as a joke and a conspiracy.

During a survey, a young man named Zakeem Khan, who founded an youth organisation in his village, said that he knows about Covid-19. He shared that young people collected funds to put sanitisers in the area, where people now come to disinfect their hands. But according to Zakeem, religious clerics can play a better role in imparting information that healthcare professionals suggest as precautionary measures in the region.

Another local resident, Malik Usman, said that he acts on the measures suggested by the authorities, he has reduced his attendance in Jirgas, but because the culture is deep rooted so no one is ready to give up on handshake. But if they have access to social media, people in the villages will be able to be updated on the latest information, and it is possible that people adopt precautions here.

Due to the war against extremism and terrorism in the tribal region since the past two decades, the attitudes of people and thier mentality has been deeply affected because an entire generation has been brought up in these circumstances. This is a generation that has internalised the effects of both the advancement of the modern world and the regressive regime of the FCR. The government might not have realised that it will need to take concrete measures to take them out of the effects of extremism, which also includes making the internet available to everyone in the region. This access has not only become necessary to acquire education, but also to access basic information. As soon as it is made available here, it would be better for the youth and their future, because sooner or later, the internet will be accessible here since the world has become a global village, and words like inaccessible and closed have no place in this era.

Since writing this story, the Islamabad High Court has taken notice of the internet shutdown in the tribal region, and has ordered restoration of 3G and 4G services in former-FATA while also acknowledging it as a fundamental right of every Pakistani linking with the right to freedom of expression protected under Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

Umar Daraz Wazir is a journalist, and the President of Waziristan Union of Journalists.

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