“Before I had time to even stand from the desk, the door was thrown open and three men burst into my office. A gun was placed against my forehead.”
He makes the shape of a gun with his hand as he talks, and pushed his finger slowly to my head, not once breaking eye contact.
“Close this school. Leave. Or we will destroy it. And we will kill you.”
“But I refused. They were not going to take my school. I had built this school from nothing, the children need this school. Nepal needs these schools…
I was scared, of course I was scared. But I looked into his eyes and I knew he would not shoot me. We spoke. We spoke for almost three hours. In the end we came to an agreement.
They called the teachers, gathered the children, and took the books. All of the books and the lessons.”
The principal then walked me to the middle of the playground and described how they were forced to take the books and pile them high on the hard dirt in the middle of the playground, they were then doused in petrol and they were set alight.
“In silence we stood and watched the fire burn down to its end, all of our books destroyed. I wondered what next, what this all meant. But in the end, what could be done? What to do… Ke garne…”
WITH THE RELEASE of the Education under Attack report 2014 and the recent Boko Haram attacks on schools in Nigeria, violence in education has never been more in focus. Yet as comprehensive as the report is, with thirty separate detailed country profiles and an accompanying list of forty others in which attacks occur frequently, the two hundred and sixty page report has only scratched the surface, with many more countries omitted entirely. This includes Nepal.
For as long as there has been organised education there has been violence against it, from the times of the Roman Empire and the burning of the great library at Alexandria through to the turbulent times of the present, where there has been conflict; schools and universities have become valid and accepted targets. Although now entirely a cliché, the phrase “knowledge is power”, is exercised and adopts a literal meaning. Education, or more accurately the ability to control it, becomes a dangerous weapon in times of unrest.
During the largely unreported civil war in Nepal that raged between 1996 and 2006, over 15,000 people lost their lives and more than 100,000 were displaced due to the violence. Although the civil war has ended, the country is still rocked by political instability as it attempts to form a new government after becoming a republic in 2008. Politicians continue to disagree on the drafting of a new constitution for Nepal, as agreed with Maoist leaders as part of the peace agreement, and crippling levels of corruption in the country hamper all efforts towards progress with Transparency Internationals corruption perception index placing Nepal as the second most corrupt south Asian country after Afghanistan.
During the conflict schools were particularly vulnerable to attack as the westernised style of teaching and emphasis on use of the English language directly contradicted the Maoists insurgencies vision of what a communist Nepali republic should be. While the violence in education report documented instances of kidnaps, use of facilities to house soldiers, shootings, bombings and general intimidation towards staff members and pupils of schools, Nepal did not even feature as a footnote despite meeting all the aforementioned criteria.
During the tim eframe in which the report is concerned, the UN declared schools in Nepal to be “zones of peace” – a term of little significance to those that consider targeting schools a viable course of action. Undeterred, school buses were subjected to repeated arson attacks, with notable cases including factions of the Maoist affiliated student union hijacking several school buses in Kathmandu and the eastern town of Dharan during the summer of 2012; and the most recent attempted bombing at a school in Kathmandu in November 2013 in the run up to the election.
There has been progress however, as instances of actual physical violence are in decline – but the slack appears to have been taken up with increased use of bomb hoaxes, intimidation and fear mongering tactics.
Nepal has not forgotten the times of the civil war, and during the recent elections – the first of their kind – schools remained closed for periods of up to seven weeks during the strikes. Incited by the Maoists in the run up to the election, closures were done in fear of violent reprisals, should “the jungle fighters” return.
The strikes could not have come at a worse time for schools: the end of school year exams were fast approaching and as a result there were fears that the children’s academic performance would then suffer.
This is where the true victim of this style of attack reveals itself. If you look at the table of contents in the GCPEA Education under Attack Report you will find it is heavily weighted with countries in the developing world. Without a stable education platform, development in these countries is impossible. What these” freedom fighters” and “liberators” need to realise is that they are holding the nation and ultimately themselves back.
While it is excellent that the issue is gaining awareness throughout the media, and reports on the topic are published, the critical information isn’t getting through. Violence in education is global, and far too many countries are slipping through the cracks: left to suffer in silence. As long as that continues, so will the circle of violence and stunted progress.
Words and Photographs by Robbie Somers