- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

From combined dispatches
KABUL, Afghanistan Girls in bright red dresses and transparent green headscarves took center stage at a ceremony yesterday marking the first day of the school year in Afghanistan, where thousands of girls entered a classroom for the first time in years.
Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, looked on as eager students squirmed in their seats in Amani High School's auditorium and sang songs about the joys of education. Amani is a boys' school, but girls enrolled in other schools also attended the ceremony.
"Today we cry out of happiness," said Mr. Karzai, who choked with emotion during his speech and had to stop talking briefly to collect himself. "He's crying," one girl whispered to a friend.
Mr. Karzai called schoolchildren "the future of our great country."
Education in Afghanistan has been severely eroded by more than two decades of war and five years of Taliban rule, during which girls over 8 were barred from school and boys were mostly taught about Islam.
Yesterday, children ran, skipped and dawdled to school with female teachers back in class and everyday subjects like math replacing the Islamic dogma of the ousted Taliban.
There are even pictures of people images banned by the Taliban in new textbooks written by Afghan scholars at U.S. universities and rushed to the country in recent days.
Parents said they woke children early to brush their shoes, a somewhat vain attempt to send them to school looking perfectly smart after Kabul was hit by a hailstorm overnight.
"I'm very happy to be going to school so I can become a doctor or an engineer to serve my people." said 12-year-old Mohammed Rasul Bashir as he picked up his textbooks.
On the back covers were photographs of drug addicts and anti-drug slogans to discourage the use of narcotics in one of the world's leading opium producers.
Some girls enrolled in catch-up classes as early as last November, when Taliban rule was collapsing under the pressure of the U.S.-led military offensive. But the new school year started Friday, the start of spring and the first working day after Afghans celebrated the Islamic lunar calendar's new year.
At mosques on Friday, religious leaders urged parents to send their children to school for the good of the nation.
Along with the drive for a wider education, authorities have also kept their eye on Afghanistan's religious sensibilities.
One shipment of textbooks was returned because the books did not make a reference to God on their first page. Devout Muslims always begin a book or a speech "In the Name of God" in Arabic.
"We have removed any references glorifying war and jihad, anything that reeks of violence and blood," said Nourollah, an Afghan educator.
There are an estimated 4.4 million primary-school-age children in Afghanistan. The U.N. Children's Fund, which started a campaign over the winter to encourage parents to send their children to school, said 1.5 million primary school children would start school Friday and that it hoped another 500,000 would be enrolled by May.
Even before the Taliban took power in 1996, schools in Kabul were rarely open because of the factional fighting that began when the pro-Moscow government collapsed in 1992.
Many schools in the capital were destroyed in the fighting among the factions that flattened whole neighborhoods.
As the new year got under way, the enthusiasm to start couldn't disguise the poor condition of the schools, many riddled with bullet holes and badly scarred by rocket and mortar fire.
Across the country, there are also serious problems with supplies and space. Aid organizations have used helicopters and donkeys in efforts to get supplies to isolated schools, said Mahboob Shareef, the head of UNICEF for northern Afghanistan.
At the Tajrubouwi School in Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north, there are 3,700 students and not enough classrooms. Girls attend school in three shifts, said the principal, Kemia Nazari.
Mrs. Nazari also said that teachers have not yet been paid, and she pleaded for tents to use as classrooms and for basic supplies like pens, chalk and notebooks, with which only one-tenth of her students were supplied.
Still, she said, "students are so happy that they don't care about chairs or blackboards."
In a Dari language class at Tajrubouwi, first and third graders sat together because of the lack of classrooms and their teacher had to stop her lesson when she used up the only piece of chalk in the room.
At Tajrubouwi, 8-year-old Saghar was attending school for the very first time and wore a new backpack for the occasion. She took private classes for the last three months and could already read.
"I want to be a doctor," she said. "It's important to read."
The effort to restore Afghanistan's educational system has mostly been funded by foreign countries. Japan contributed 60 percent of the money spent so far, and the United States has contributed 4 million textbooks.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, said these measures were only the beginning.
"We cannot disappoint the children of Afghanistan," he said. "Our work should not stop."


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