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A War on Schoolgirls

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Unable to win on the battlefield, the Taliban are fighting to prevent half the country's children from getting an education.

By Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai

June 26, 2006 issue - Summer vacation has only begun, but as far as 12-year-old Nooria is concerned, the best thing is knowing she has a school to go back to in the fall. She couldn't be sure the place would stay open four months ago, after the Taliban tried to burn it down. Late one February night, more than a dozen masked gunmen burst into the 10-room girls' school in Nooria's village, Mandrawar, about 100 miles east of Kabul. They tied up and beat the night watchman, soaked the principal's office and the library with gasoline, set it on fire and escaped into the darkness. The townspeople, who doused the blaze before it could spread, later found written messages from the gunmen promising to cut off the nose and ears of any teacher or student who dared to return.

The threats didn't work. Within days, most of the school's 650 pupils were back to their studies. Classes were held under a grove of trees in the courtyard for several weeks, despite the winter chill, until repairs inside the one-story structure were complete. Nearby schools replaced at least some of the library's books. But the hate mail kept coming, with threats to shave the teachers' heads as well as mutilate their faces. Earlier this month, NEWSWEEK visited and talked to students and faculty on the last day of classes. Nooria, who dreams of becoming a teacher herself, expressed her determination to finish school. "I'm not afraid of getting my nose and ears cut off," she said, all dressed up in a long purple dress and headscarf. "I want to keep studying."

Schoolgirls need that kind of courage in Afghanistan. Unable to win on the battlefield, the Taliban are trying to discredit the Kabul government by blocking its efforts to raise Afghanistan out of its long dark age. They particularly want to undo one of the biggest changes of the past four years: the resumption of education for girls, which the Taliban outlawed soon after taking power in 1996. "The extremists want to show the people that the government and the international community cannot keep their promises," says Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Today the Ministry of Education says the country has 1,350 girls' schools, along with 2,900 other institutions that hold split sessions, with girls-only classes in the afternoon. (Coeducation is still forbidden.) More than a third of Afghanistan's 5 million schoolchildren are now girls, compared with practically none in early 1992. In the last six months, however, Taliban attacks and threats of attacks have disrupted or shut down more than 300 of those schools.

Most of the closures have been in the far south, where the Taliban are strongest, but schools are also getting hit in areas that used to be relatively safe, like the fertile river valleys of Laghman province. The rock-walled compound where Nooria attends classes is one of six schools for girls in the province that have been torched so far this year. The damage at two of them was so bad that they remain closed. In nearby Logar province, arsonists have struck 10 sister schools—all within 50 miles of Kabul. "People are extremely frightened," says Palwasha Shaheed Kakar, the AIHRC representative in neighboring Nangarhar province, where at least eight other schools have burned. "These extremists need to attack only one or two schools to send a strong message."

The girls' school in Haider Khani village, just up the main road from Mandrawar, has suffered a sharp drop in attendance since January, when masked gunmen forced their way in and torched the place. Before the attack, up to 80 percent of the families in Haider Khani were sending their daughters to school, according to the principal, Fazal Rabi. An American military Provincial Reconstruction Team quickly repaired the damage and reopened the school. Even so, the principal reckons that only 40 percent of the village's preteen girls came back, and only 10 percent of the teenagers. Parents dread what might happen on the walk to school. Teachers get scared, too. Since the Mandrawar attack, Nooria's teacher, Farida, has traveled to and from school every day wearing a burqa and escorted by a male relative. "Otherwise I fear my nose and hair will be cut off," she told NEWSWEEK.

Even the country's 4,250 boys-only schools are vulnerable to attack. Some enemies of the Kabul government claim that the school system is no more than a plot to impose Western ideas—even Christianity—on the country's Muslim children. Back in February, Taliban fighters threatened to shut down the boys-only school in the town of Ghanzi, an hour's drive north of Kabul, according to Malak Mirza, 55, a local tribal elder. The townspeople sent back a warning that the Taliban would be driven out of the area if the school was attacked. The Taliban relented on one condition: no Christian-ity (which is very occasionally taught in Afghanistan—surreptitiously—by zealous missionaries). They distrust any education that takes place outside madrassas. "These extremists know that educated children are unlikely to follow religious extremism in the future," says Nadery. "The Taliban want to keep us backward."

Nevertheless, the Kabul government is losing popular support, in part because it seems unable to prevent such attacks. U.N. and AIHRC officials say few if any school arsonists have been arrested. People in Laghman province tend to blame President Hamid Karzai as much as they blame the Taliban for their vulnerability. "The authorities haven't done anything to help us," says Abdul Rauf, the principal in Mandrawar. Rabi, his colleague just up the highway, adds: "When we look at what Karzai and the local government are doing for us, we are not optimistic about our future. In terms of education and security, I'd say we're making zero progress."

Ordinary Afghans seem especially angry at their local police. The country's law enforcers have a reputation for crookedness, and people say that the schools get little or no protection. "The police spend their time patrolling for money, but not protecting citizens and schools," says Mulvi Said Rahman, a member of Parliament from Laghman. A year ago, Rahman says, he persuaded several fighters from the province to quit the Taliban and come home, but before long they rejoined the extremists—fed up with incessant police shakedowns. "Two years ago there were no Taliban around here," Rahman adds. "Now a lot of people support the Taliban. They are tired of official corruption and abuse of power." The arsonists may be trying to muddy the cops' name even more: at two of the Laghman schools that were torched, the watchmen say the attackers wore police uniforms.

All the same, the people of Laghman province are refusing to give up what their daughters have gained. Security forces are stretched too thin to assign sentries to every school, even with U.S. and NATO backup, but the province's elders have signed letters of support for their girls' schools, promising that villagers will post their own guards if they have to. "The Taliban are cowards," says Col. Tom Collins, the U.S. military spokesman in Kabul. "They operate in places where there's not much government presence to stop them." In response to the recent surge of school burnings and other Taliban attacks, U.S., NATO and Afghan forces have launched a major coun-teroffensive deep into the lawless high country of southern Afghanistan. One measure of Operation Mountain Thrust's success or failure will be whether Nooria is back in class next fall. She certainly hopes to be.

Created by keza
Last modified 2006-06-20 04:42 AM

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