Afghans reopen schools with joy

Education is part of quest for peace, government says

UNICEF airlifts supplies

March 24, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - As hundreds of girls stepped across a muddy street and through the steel gates of Sherino High School yesterday, they entered a world forbidden to them just a few months ago - and one still out of reach for millions of other Afghan children.

Yesterday marked the start of the school year in Afghanistan and the first official day of classes for girls here since the Taliban banished women from work and schools in 1996. But they weren't the only children deprived of a chance for an education. Two thirds of Afghanistan's 3,000 schools were damaged or destroyed during 23 years of warfare, UNICEF officials estimate.

Afghanistan's interim government - with a lot of aid from the United Nations and donor countries - has launched a crash program to rebuild the school system. Officials say that, in the quest for peace, sending the country's school-age children back to their classrooms is second in importance only to preventing fresh fighting among rival tribal factions.

The United Nations estimates that the literacy rate among women is 4 percent, while for all Afghans it may be just 13 percent. It's feared that if nothing is done soon, another generation could be lost. And there is hope that an educated Afghanistan won't slide back into chaos and radicalism.

So UNICEF officials have launched what they say is the largest logistical operation in the agency's history, airlifting millions of books, thousands of blackboards and hundreds of 50-student school tents to schools. "Never before has the start of the school year in one country been greeted with such eagerness and enthusiasm by people all over the world," said Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan.

In the gymnasium of Amani High School in central Kabul, an emotional Hamid Karzai, chairman of the interim government, led the ceremonies marking Afghanistan's first day of school. "We cannot find a happier day than this," said Karzai as his voice thickened and his eyes began to tear. "Truly, our countrymen are still shedding tears. But our tears today come from happiness. These tears are for pride and for joy." Though Amani is a boys' school, girls enrolled in other schools attended the ceremony.

Across town, new and returning female students at Sherino High listened to speeches, prayers and songs. One teen-ager read a poem she wrote about Kabul's liberation from Taliban rule barely four months ago. "Tell the crude, uneducated and foolish people that their eyes are now blind, and they are lame, but now we are in school," she said scornfully.

For this historic day, Sherino's students wore a riot of colors: black velvet shawls and white lace scarves; traditional scarlet costumes trimmed with gold lace; shimmering green, rust and gray dresses. Some wore makeup; others' faces were smudged with dirt. All were jammed in a cold drizzle for more than an hour while Principal Parwin Rasouli led the celebration.

"During the regime of the Taliban, there was suffering and hardship," Rasouli told her students. "But we succeeded. We kept open our schools. Now it is the time for all teachers - whatever their ethnic background or skin color - to stand shoulder to shoulder, to teach the children of this country."

After the Taliban conquered Kabul, Farista Kaifar, an 11th-grader, clandestinely studied in the home of one of Sherino's teachers. Yesterday, the slender, brown-eyed woman was elated to be back at public school, even though the roof of her classroom leaks, the walls are being painted, and there are no chairs or desks. Thousands of new textbooks had arrived yesterday. But all were in cartons awaiting distribution.

Some American children gripe about the end of vacation, Kaifar was told. "They have been going constantly to school, that is why it is boring to them," said the confident 18-year-old. "But we have not gone to school for the past five years, so to us, it is amazing."

Marzia Dost, 35, was teaching seventh-graders at Sherino (pronounced sher-ee-NO) when it closed to female students and teachers in 1996. (By pre-Taliban tradition, Afghan schools are co-ed through the sixth grade, single-sex after that. High schools include grades one through 12.) Sometimes, she said, she feared the public schools might never reopen to girls. "We were hopeful, but we were also doubtful. The past five years were a very long time."

Though yesterday was the official start of the school year, many in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, started admitting girls not long after the Taliban fled in November. Over the past three months, Rasouli said, about 2,000 students and most of the school's 85 teachers returned to work. About 1,000 students are expected in the next months, she said, as refugees return from Pakistan and Iran.

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