Afghan girls' schools in danger


By MATTHEW PENNINGTON

TWELVE-year-old Farida was scared about going to school for her science examination, but it wasn't pre-test nerves. 

The night before, unidentified assailants drove across the dusty plain to her village in central Logar province, in Afghanistan, doused three tented classrooms in gasoline and set fire to them. The arsonists fled as the tents burned to the ground last week. 

The villagers of Moghul Khil don't know for sure who did it, but if the ominous “night letters'' circulated after two previous school burnings in Logar in the past month offer any clues, suspicion points to Afghanistan's former ruling Taliban militia. 

The letters, purporting to come from the Taliban and other hardline Islamic groups, have threatened to kill anyone who worked with the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, and demanded that girls' schools close. The Taliban regime prohibited girls from attending school as part of its widely criticised drive to establish what it considered a “pure'' Islamic state, before it was ousted by a US-led military force in late 2001. 

DETERMINED: Girls at the Moghul Khil school sit in their burned classroom in the district of Logar province, 60km south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Early this month, suspected Taliban razed the primary school and scattered letters threatening those who teach Afghan girls.

Despite the attack, classes have resumed in an undamaged stone school house next to the charred frames of the tents. The schoolhouse was built by villagers and teachers with the help of a Danish charity and is attended by more than 1,100 local children. 

“I went on the roof of my house and saw the fire,'' Farida said. “I'm afraid of the fire, but I'll still go back to school tomorrow as I like school.'' 

However, there is still opposition among many in conservative rural Afghanistan to education for girls. Some men in the village who were asked by a reporter for directions to the school laughed and said: “Why do you want to go there? It's been burned down.''  

The Taliban have recently stepped up attacks against government targets, particularly in the south and east of the country, where a joint Afghan government-US coalition operation in the past week to hunt down the Islamic guerrillas has triggered the heaviest fighting since their regime was ousted. 

Local security officials said there's little they can do to stop ambushes and wildcat sabotage attacks. No one has been arrested for the three arson attacks on schools in the past month. 

Mohammed Nasim, chief of Muhammad Agha district where the school is located, has just a handful of officers and a solitary radio to call the local military if he needs help. “We have no patrol car, no motorbike, no telephone,'' he said. 

Quadrat Ullah, spokesman for the regional military commander, said “extremists'' like the Taliban were likely behind the school burnings.  

School principal Mohammed Ayoub said families in Moghul Khil village were strong believers in education for both sexes and had run a secret girls' school during the Taliban time. He said the villagers had spent one year constructing their new school, which opened two years ago in a ceremony attended by local VIPs. 

“If I or the government catches them, I'd like to burn them like they burned our tents,'' he said. – AP 

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