LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan | Taliban and other militant groups are forcing schools to close across Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, assassinating teachers and students and destroying school buildings, educators and government officials say.
Helmand's deputy minister of education, Mamoud Mohammed Wali, said extremists have forced 75 of the 228 public schools in the province to close and have burned down at least eight in the past year.
The schools are being destroyed as 21,000 U.S. troops surge into Afghanistan. Many of them are likely to wind up in Helmand, a large agrarian province west of Kandahar.
Though the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and some larger towns remain relatively secure, the Taliban controls the countryside and has made Helmand the nation's leading producer of opium.
As a result of Taliban attacks in outlying areas, government officials say, about 3,000 students have flooded Lashkar Gah. The students have jammed classrooms beyond capacity, forcing administrators to conduct lessons in tents.
Taliban officials deny that they have destroyed schools.
"We have never taken the responsibility for setting the schools into fire," said Qari Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman. The government officials "are only blaming us for the destruction without any evidence, and for sure we have not committed that kind of crime."
School officials in Lashkar Gah said the attacks are part of an effort by armed militants to intimidate residents, control small pockets of the province and institute an extreme brand of Islam.
"They just don't want the population to receive an education," said Shahsanam Khan, 51, headmaster of the Karte Lagam Boys' School, where assassins shot a student and a security guard in 2007.
Achtar Mohammed, a 25-year-old high school senior, said Taliban soldiers threatened to kill teachers at his school in Nawa-i-Barakzayi district and then set fire to the building one evening last year.
"The Taliban said our school was destroyed because it was not providing an Islamic education," said Mr. Mohammed, who now attends Karte Lagam. But he added, "My parents are encouraging me to finish and attend university, because they never did."
Abdul Matin, 19, a student in the senior class at Karte Lagam, said he fled his village in the Nad Ali district after the Taliban issued a warning to close the school and killed a teacher.
"The students and teachers stopped coming after that," said Mr. Matin, who plans to attend Kabul University next year.
Meanwhile, the Taliban and other militants continue to prevent Afghan girls from attending school in much of Helmand.
Qamar Nayazi, the headmistress at Lashkar Gah's Malalai School, calls her institution an oasis for girls seeking education. "People are afraid of the Taliban," Mrs. Nayazi said. "Girls come to our school to receive an education because they're allowed to study here."
Nooria Baharmani, 17, a high school junior at Malalai, arrived in Lashkar Gah last year with three sisters - ages 12, 10 and 8 - after they fled Nad Ali.
"There were many threats, but our teachers are very brave and continued teaching," she said.
Those efforts ended Feb. 15, when Taliban militants captured and burned the school without warning.
"They just destroyed it, but I don't know why," she said.
Teachers across southern Afghanistan have taken notice, and many are searching for safer places to live. Mohammed Daud, a 34-year-old science teacher, said he fled Nawa-i-Barakzayi after Afghan and international forces clashed with militants.
"It's too dangerous for me to return home to work," said Mr. Daud, who now teaches at Karte Lagam.
The Malalai School provides secondary classes exclusively for girls, and primary education for boys and girls. Those not fortunate enough to cram into one of 13 classrooms receive lessons in one of 10 white tents pitched in a sandy courtyard.
"It's too cold in the winter," said a teacher, Khatemia Hussani, 22. "Many of the students become ill."
More than 50 children sat on straw mats bundled in jackets, sweaters and scarves during a math lesson on a cool morning earlier this year.
Despite the flow of teachers into Lashkar Gah, there are still too few to keep pace with the influx of students.
Mrs. Nayazi, Malalai's headmistress, said the school has only 67 teachers for 2,200 children.
"It's not possible to teach properly, but we have no other choice now," said Gulalai Aslam, 40, a chemistry and biology instructor with at least 50 students in each of her classes.
Conditions are even more constrained across town at the Karte Lagam Boys' School, where 70 teachers in grades one through 12 instruct 3,500 students.
"It's not a good position to be in to learn," said Mohammad Sadat, a 14-year-old eighth-grader. "It's chaotic and difficult to concentrate. Someone is always coming and going around me."
Naimatullah Maihin, 23, the vice principal at Karte Lagam, said the number of students makes it difficult to maintain control and "sometimes, we have to use force because that's all they understand."
A lack of funding for education compounds the crisis, officials said.
Students in tents at the Malalai School have no chairs, electricity or portable heaters. The Karte Lagam Boys' school lacks chalkboards in its 21 tented classrooms.
"The government is neglecting us," said Mr. Khan, the Karte Lagam headmaster, who added that his school also has a shortage of textbooks. But Mr. Wali, Helmand's deputy minister of education, said the provincial government is providing a monthly housing allowance of about $60 to displaced students and their families, along with school supplies such as backpacks, books and pencils.
The United Nations Children's Fund provides cooking oil and biscuits to some students in Lashkar Gah, but Mrs. Nayazi said the international community should give more assistance. "Only the education ministry is helping us," she said.
Teachers in Lashkar Gah earn up to $100 a month depending on seniority. In February, Helmand's governor offered teachers empty lots on which to build houses. Still, many say it is not enough.
"We need more money," said Mr. Daud, the displaced science teacher working at Karte Lagam. He is the sole provider for his wife and six children.
Despite the difficulties, most teachers said they have few employment alternatives, considering the ongoing fighting and the country's weak economy.
"We have to do this," said Abdul Hamid, 30, an Islamic studies instructor who arrived in Lashkar Gah in 2006 after his school in Uruzgan province closed. He now supports a wife and 10 children.
"It's our duty, and there are no other jobs here," he said.