NOW ZAD, Afghanistan | Zarmina and Sharifa have very big dreams for very little girls.
One of the sisters from the Now Zad district of Helmand province wants to be a teacher; the other wants to be a doctor. And thats understandable. Both saw their first teacher and doctor only recently, and neither had ever imagined before then any kind of life beyond farming, child-rearing, cooking and menial labor.
"Our mother and father told us to come," said Zarmina, who thinks she is about 11 years old. "We didnt go to school before, because there was no school.
"We like this. We are learning things. Its safe, and were not afraid to come here," she said.
The two are among the 100 to 200 children attending classes every day in a school started in an abandoned building by U.S. Marines and their interpreters after Taliban gunmen were expelled from the town in early December.
On the first day, only about 80 children showed up. Five of them were girls, whom the Taliban had forbidden to get an education. On the second day, attendance was nearly 200 children younger than 13 and just two girls. Now the number, although it fluctuates each day, averages more than 100 boys and 20 girls who walk to class from villages as far as four miles away.
"It was chaos on the first day," said Master Sgt. Julia Watson, who handles female engagement for the civil affairs team working with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. "The building was packed with yelling and talking kids. So the first day was instilling discipline and order."
She added, "They are all excited about learning to read and write, and many want to learn English also."
The classroom at Now Zads school is just a large room in what was once the district government center on the edge of town. The school has no chairs for the children, just frayed rugs on the damp and dusty concrete floor. It has no lighting or heat.
The children are divided into four groups. The girls make up their own group in one corner of the building.
"We divided it because we only have four teachers," said Mansur, the newly hired school principal. "The girls are separate because in our culture, we dont do coed activities." Mansur, like many other people in this northern area of Helmand province, uses only a single name.
Mansur said children are taught first-grade-level reading, writing and arithmetic, but he hopes that in time theyll be able to complete lessons up to a fourth-grade level. The few books that the school has came from the United Nations via the Marines. The Marines, with the help of troops' care packages from the United States, provide supplies such as pencils and notebooks as well as bags filled with games and candy.
Teddy bears and other stuffed animals sent to troops from U.S. schoolchildren were given to Zarmina, Sharifa and other girls.
Basic toiletries such as soap, toothbrushes and skin moisturizer are periodically sent home with the children as well.
The Marines interpreters taught the classes at first. Within two weeks, however, four men in the district with teaching experience were located, were convinced that Now Zad was safe and were hired at $6 per day.
"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.