Schools of hope

With the virtual collapse of government schools, many parents have to depend on Wahhabi-funded madra

Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently in the Observer: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state."

Yet the reality on the ground in Pakistan is far more complex than the caricature imagined by the likes of Amis: under the urbane eye of Shaukat Aziz, formerly a vice-president of Citi bank and now Pervez Musharraf's prime minister, Pakistan is enjoying a construction and consumer boom, with growth approaching 8 per cent and the fastest-rising stock market in Asia. It also has better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity than in India. Flying in to Lahore or Islamabad from Delhi or Bombay, one feels immediately that one is in a less poverty-ridden country: there are fewer beggars on the roads, the new motorways and concrete mosques make it more closely resemble a dusty Gulf state than a former part of India, and the houses look more substantial.

There are, however, many areas where Pakistan is doing less well than India: most obviously, the country seems unable to support sustained democratic governance. It has an abysmal human-rights record, a long history of some of the worst governmental corruption in the world, and an increasingly violent Islamist problem.

Yet, despite these awesome difficulties, no problem in Pakistan casts such a long shadow over its future as the abject failure of the government to educate more than a fraction of its own people: at the moment a mere 1.8 per cent of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. The statistics are dreadful: 15 per cent of these government schools are without a proper building; 52 per cent without a boundary wall; 40 per cent without water; 71 per cent without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed, many of these schools are empty ruins or exist only on paper.

This was graphically confirmed by a survey conducted two years ago by the former Pakistan cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan in his own constituency of Mianwali. His research showed that 20 per cent of government schools supposed to be functioning in his constituency did not exist at all, a quarter had no teachers and 70 per cent were closed. No school had more than half of the teachers it was meant to have. Of those that were just about functioning, many had children of all grades crammed into a single room, often sitting on the floor. There is little wonder that Pakistan ranks among the very lowest countries in the UNDP's world human development index.

This education gap is the most striking way in which Pakistan lags behind its neighbour: in India 65 per cent of the population is literate, and the number rises annually. Only last year, the Indian education system received a substantial boost from state funds; and there is, in any case, a tradition among Hindus of making terrific sacrifices in order to educate children. But in Pakistan the literacy figure is under half (it is currently 49 per cent), and falling: instead of investing in education, Musharraf's military government is spending money on a cripplingly expensive fleet of American F-16s for its air force. As a result, 83 million adults of 15 years and above - out of a population of 160 million - are illiterate. Among women the problem is worse still: 65 per cent of all female adults are illiterate. As the population rockets, the problem will get worse: only half the children in Pakistan will have access to any formal education, and the remaining half will never see the inside of a school. Of those who do enrol, half will drop out in the course of their primary education.

The virtual collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the poorest people who wish to enhance their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place them in the madrasa system, where they are guaranteed an ultra-conservative and outdated but none the less free education, often subsidised by religious endowments provided by the Wahhabi Saudis.

Altogether there are now an estimated 800,000 to one million students enrolled in Pakistan's madrasas: an entire free Islamic education system existing parallel to the increasingly moribund state sector. Though the link between the madrasas and al-Qaeda is often exaggerated - the overwhelming majority of the sophisticated international Salafi jihadis associated with Osama Bin Laden's group are middle-class and were well educated at western-style colleges - it is true that madrasa students have been closely involved in both the rise of the Taliban and the growth of sectarian violence within Pakistan and Afghanistan; it is also true that the education provided by many madrasas is often wholly inadequate to prepare or equip children for modern life in a civil society.

Education within reach

There is, however, one bright glimmer of hope in this depressingly dark situation. In 1995, a group of Karachi-based Pakistani businessmen founded a new charity called The Citizens Foundation, or TCF, with the simple aim of taking Pakistan's children off the streets and providing them with a quality, secular education at heavily subsidised prices. Since then the charity has grown at the most remarkable rate: TCF now has 311 purpose-built schools located in Pakistan's most miserable slums and most underdeveloped rural areas, and a new one opens every single week. Each morning, around 40,000 boys and girls enter the gates of a TCF school somewhere in Pakistan.

The TCF schools I have visited are remarkable: in contrast to the government-run primaries, which usually resemble little more than cattle pens, TCF schools are beautifully planned two-storey structures built in brick, with attractive courtyards and verandas. Each has six classrooms, a library, an art room and washrooms with running water; the secondary schools have, in addition, science and computer rooms. The quality of teaching is surprisingly high, and TCF has its own purpose-built teacher-training institute where the staff - entirely made up of women, in order to encourage parents to enrol their girls - receive a thorough grounding in education. Since it was opened in 1997, more than 2,400 trained teachers have emerged from the institute and taken up positions in TCF schools.

The quality of teaching provided to the children in many cases equals that of Pakistan's smartest private schools; yet the kids who enrol are from the very poorest and most deprived families. Although all children have to pay fees of a minimum of ten Pakistani rupees a month, TCF's adjustable fee structure gives the poorest children access to an education, uniforms and school books at heavily subsidised rates - up to 95 per cent of fees - putting a top-quality edu cation within the reach of the poor for the first time. Already the first batch of graduates from the TCF system has been winning scholarships to Pakistan's leading colleges.

It costs just £10 a month to educate a child at a TCF school; £6,000 will keep an entire school running for a year. TCF is probably the most dynamic, impressive and well-run south Asian charity I have come across in 20 years of writing about the subcontinent. Yet, given Pakistan's now central geopolitical role, and the huge stake that the west has in seeing Pakistan surviving as a moderate and potentially democratic country, it is an NGO that we need to support almost as much out of self-interest as charity.

Donations can be sent to: The Friends of the Citizens Foundation, 9 Camden Road, London E11 2JP. The TCF website is http://www.thecitizensfoundation.org

William Dalrymple will be giving a fundraising lecture for TCF on his new book, "The Last Mughal", at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7, on Thursday 17 May. Tickets cost £15 each and are available online at http://www.ftcf.org.uk

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle