SWABI, Pakistan — Hundreds of villagers in northwest Pakistan turned out Wednesday to bury five female teachers and two health workers who were gunned down a day earlier by militants in what may have been the latest in a series of attacks targeting anti-polio efforts in the country.
The seven had worked at a community center in the town of Swabi that included a primary school and a medical clinic that vaccinated children against polio. Some militants oppose the vaccination campaigns, accusing health workers of acting as spies for the U.S. and alleging the vaccine is intended to make Muslim children sterile.
As mourners carried the coffins through the town for burial Wednesday, family and friends expressed horror that such an attack had struck their community.
“I told her many times at home ‘be careful as we are poor people and take care of yourself all the time,'” said Fazal Dad, whose daughter was among the seven killed. “And always in response she said: ‘Father, if I am not guilty no one can harm me.'”
The group was on their way home from the community center where they were employed by a non-governmental organization when their vehicle was attacked Tuesday. The four militants on motorcycles spared the young son of one of the women who was riding in the van, pulling him from the vehicle before spraying it with bullets. The driver survived and was being treated at a Peshawar hospital.
There has been no claim of responsibility, and police have not made any arrests.
The director of the NGO said he suspected the attack might have been retribution for the group’s work helping vaccinate Pakistani children against polio. Javed Akhtar said the community group has suspended its operations throughout the province. He called the move “temporary” but said he did not know when they would resume their work.
Many local residents view the girls’ primary school and medical clinic run by the NGO at the community center as saviors for the community’s poor. Now many are worried about what will happen if those services are cut off.
Gul Afzal Khan, a villager whose children studied at a community center run by the group, said the attack was a big loss.
“What is their crime?” he asked. “They were just giving free education and health assistance to our children.”
The attack also was another reminder of the risks to women educators and aid workers from Islamic militants who oppose their work.
Last month, nine people working on an anti-polio vaccination campaign were shot and killed. Four of those shootings were in the northwest where Tuesday’s attack took place.