JALALABAD, Afghanistan The laughter of little girls will break a silence of five years when schools open today, beginning a five-day registration period for both boys and girls less than a week after Taliban officials were driven from this tribal area.
“We don’t have books, chairs or desks, but even with a pen and some paper, children will be sitting on the ground ready to study,” said Abdul Ghani Hidayat, 50, the new education minister for Jalalabad and its surrounding province.
With the Taliban driven from the province by its traditional Pashtun tribal leaders, local people are planning to resume the life they knew before the hard-line Muslim regime took over. The first steps toward normality, still tentative, are being taken by the most vulnerable people in Afghan society.
Officials today begin a vigorous five-day school registration drive to coax male and female students back into a conventional school system dismantled by the Taliban. The call to return to school will be heard from radio, loudspeaker trucks and even in mosques.
Education for boys was permitted but neglected under the Taliban. There was only one class: religion. Conventional teaching of many subjects gave way to rote memorizing of the Koran and the instruction of Muslim clerics.
As with most aspects of life under the Taliban, the suffering of women was even more acute. Few young girls in this area have even seen the inside of a classroom. The Taliban prohibited the education of women, banned sports, music and even jumping rope.
“The Taliban just didn’t care about schools,” said Mr. Hidayat, who returned from exile on Thursday, one day after local tribal leaders pushed the Taliban from the city.
Mr. Hidayat looks the part of a stern schoolmaster. But speaking about the children, his voice softens and his eyes light up.
“Children are like roses. When you take care of them, they blossom. When you don’t, they just dry up and scatter in the wind,” he said.
Officials like Mr. Hidayat, who served in the government before the Taliban took over in 1996, hope for a turnout of 80 percent of eligible boys and girls during this week’s registration. Ultimately, they would like to see the renewal of a system that had 62,000 girls enrolled when the Taliban shut down the schools.
For all the current problems armed outlaws running loose, private armies roaming through the city and a treasury looted by the departing Taliban the province’s new rulers have made education a high priority.
The new governor, Abdul Qadeer, stopped yesterday at the Education Ministry, where he announced the school registration and the reopening of schools for girls.
“As of tomorrow, we will see how many girls come to school,” said Mr. Qadeer, who was governor before the Taliban took power. “Islam says that education is for both men and women.”
In a dusty lot outside, 9-year-old Sahar, a future student, was playing with other girls from the neighborhood. “We want to become doctors and engineers in the future. That’s why we want to go to school,” she said.
Mr. Hidayat said that even if teachers return, restoring the school system means overcoming other obstacles.
“We have some textbooks, but we will have to print others,” he said.
Schools for girls, abandoned for five years, will have to be rebuilt, but Mr. Hidayat is wasting no time in planning the new curriculum. “We will have sports coaches at school. Girls will be able to play handball, basketball and tennis.”
For some, the new government’s enthusiasm for education means little until people feel safe, both from lawless bandits or from the Taliban itself.
“I need to feel safe, and I need to be sure that the Taliban will not return before I go back to the classroom,” said one female teacher who asked not to be named.
The signs of increased security were apparent yesterday, one day after gunmen killed four reporters traveling from Jalalabad to Kabul.
Witnesses confirmed that two Reuters journalists, Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, were killed along with correspondents Julio Fuentes of Spain’s El Mundo and Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italy’s Corriere della Sera when gunmen ambushed their convoy on Monday. Their bodies were recovered yesterday.
In Jalalabad, a loudspeaker truck announced that guns would be banned from the public market beginning tomorrow. “Please leave your guns in your homes,” the announcer said.
For some parents, the reopening of girls schools was like waking up after a bad nightmare.
“According to Islam, our religion, gaining knowledge is the duty of every Muslim, men and women,” said 32-year-old Attaullah, who goes by one name, the father of a 12-year-old girl.
“Why shouldn’t girls go to school?” asked Wafiullah Miankhel, principal of Nangarhar High School. “Our country has been destroyed and we need to rebuild.”