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“There was no school in Now Zad for four years,” Mansur said. “There was no school because there werent even humans here.” Now Zad, Helmands second-largest town, was deserted from 2006 until last month. British troops, and later Americans, held an outpost on one edge of town while an estimated 100 to 200 Taliban gunmen at any given time controlled all surrounding areas, U.S. Marines said. Now Zads residential neighborhoods and bazaars were abandoned by Taliban decree, and people moved to surrounding villages.

Since the Marines retook the town in Operation Cobras Anger, people are returning, albeit slowly. The Taliban booby-trapped many homes and seeded improvised explosive devices throughout the area. Although resettlement progress will be slow, Now Zads school is now the fixture in many lives.

According to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an estimated 63 percent of rural Afghan men and 90 percent of rural Afghan women are illiterate. In Now Zad, those illiterates are sending their children to school in defiance of threats from Taliban operatives.