GILGIT-BALTISTAN, Pakistan — On a transparent evening final month, Shams al-Haq woke to the scent of smoke and the sight of the schoolhouse close to his fruit farm going up in flames.
Mr. Haq and his neighbors spent hours preventing the hearth till daybreak, when it grew to become a misplaced trigger. They quickly realized that it was considered one of 14 colleges, most of them for ladies, set ablaze on the identical evening, over the span of simply an hour in Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous territory stretching throughout northern Pakistan.
As soon as once more, it appeared ladies’ training in Pakistan was underneath assault by militants.
“The extremists have proven what frightens them most — a woman with a guide,” tweeted Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel laureate and training advocate who as a younger scholar was gravely wounded by Taliban gunmen six years in the past in Swat, a close-by valley.
However since then, the straightforward rationalization has come to appear to be solely a part of the story to some who reside right here. And as dozens of Pakistani troopers moved into the realm after the fires, many residents started contemplating new theories about who — and what — may need been behind the arson spree.
For one, the varsity that burned down close to Mr. Haq’s farm had not been in use for at the least 5 years — and there was an operational ladies’ college simply down the highway that went untouched.
That proximity has led some residents and safety analysts right here to wonder if the one cause that Pakistani safety forces surged right here after the fires was due to the financial pursuits.
Mistrust and resentment of the navy runs so deep that some speculated that Pakistani forces have used the fires as a pretext to launch a broader crackdown throughout the financial growth zone.
One author and educational, Aziz Ali Dad, mentioned you will need to ask: Who has essentially the most to realize from the navy’s sudden presence?
“Far worse assaults, a lot of them on colleges, have occurred on this space earlier than, however nobody was caught,” he mentioned. “This time, we see subsequent to no causalities and big motion. There should be strain from contained in the institution.”
The navy’s publicity wing has refused to touch upon the scenario. However the district police superintendent, Muhammad Ajmal, flatly denied theories that the military had one way or the other been concerned, saying that the troops solely got here as a result of the police wanted further assist.
“These are conspiracy theories. There’s no fact in them,” Superintendent Ajmal mentioned. “The scenario appears fairly clear: There’s a core group of unhealthy guys, recognized terrorists who’ve been concerned in this sort of stuff earlier than. They paid locals by every college to set them on hearth. Now they’ve retreated into the mountains. We’ve remoted them.”
He added: “This group isn’t just like the Taliban, in that they’re small and don’t possess the power to exert their will over a whole neighborhood. So that they do issues like burning colleges — small-scale assaults that get their message throughout.”
The native police rapidly drew up an inventory of criminals and recognized extremists they might spherical up. Within the days that adopted, a few of these extremists clashed with authorities forces, leaving three cops lifeless. Two senior authorities officers had been reported to have narrowly escaped retaliatory assassination makes an attempt.
Quickly, the Karakorum Freeway, the primary artery working by the district, was lined with police and navy checkpoints. Large military vehicles grew to become a typical sight on the dusty roads. An all-out manhunt was declared with bounties on the suspected attackers and their collaborators.
Dozens of males had been taken into custody, usually with out warrants. One school-bus driver mentioned he believed his brother had been arrested merely due to his lengthy hair, a trait related to Islamist extremists right here.
Given the strategic significance of Gilgit-Baltistan, episodes like the varsity assaults tackle a geopolitical complexity, mentioned Afzal Shigri, a former police chief from the realm.
“Due to the historical past this area has with India, with Kashmir, and now with C.P.E.C., there’s a whole lot of sensitivity to those points right here,” Mr. Shigri mentioned.
Native residents had been apprehensive in regards to the inflow of troops to an space that had no giant military presence earlier than.
“It’s not that the military is coming, it’s that they’re already right here,” mentioned Mr. Haq, wanting down the highway to the place the navy not too long ago arrange a checkpoint. “They’re not going to go away now,” he mentioned. “The system is about up that means.”
Conspiracy and distrust have change into steeped within the on a regular basis tradition within the villages and cities that line the mountain valleys, due partially to the truth that the area sits on the fault traces of a few of Pakistan’s most severe geopolitical points.
To its west is Afghanistan, embroiled in a conflict by which Pakistan has giant stakes. To the north is China, Pakistan’s financial lifeline. To the east is Kashmir, the guts of the dispute between Pakistan and India.
The picturesque mountains round Gilgit-Baltistan are weak to affect from all three, usually within the form of “businesses,” an area euphemism for informants and spies, each international and home.
However there’s one other painful fact right here, too. No matter any international intrigue, militants are nonetheless an issue and training stays a weak spot.
Of the faculties that had been attacked, those in use had been islands of progress in a district battling training. It’s ranked among the many 10th lowest in all of Pakistan. Solely 11 % of grownup girls listed below are literate.
This wave of assaults brings a cloud of uncertainty again over households that had been solely simply starting to really feel assured of their resolution to coach their ladies.
The principal of 1 the attacked colleges, declining to be named after her workplace was focused with a bomb that evening, mentioned that 10 years in the past, and even simply 5, this sort of assault would have appeared all too regular.
“I grew up right here. I used to be one of many first girls to complete my highschool training,” she mentioned. “In these days, I’d wrap myself up in a burqa simply to get to high school. My very own brothers didn’t need me to review.”
However issues are altering, she mentioned. Even essentially the most conservative mountain tribes are beginning to ship a few of their daughters to lessons. “They wouldn’t assault their very own colleges, for their very own ladies,” she mentioned. “It simply doesn’t make sense.”