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Danger lurks for Afghans who dare to go to school

Gritty, devoted educators persevere in the face of Taliban violence.

December 03, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Zarghon, Afghanistan — THE teacher had been warned.

Mohammed Aref was on duty near the front gate of his school. The children were at recess, playing volleyball without a net.

The throaty rumble of a motorcycle broke through their playful shrieks and laughter. The lone rider, a man wearing a traditional shalwar kameez with his face obscured by the long tail of his turban, called Aref over to talk. Then he pulled an AK-47 from under his baggy shirt and fired six bullets into the teacher.

Aref had no way to defend himself. His only weapons were his faith in knowledge, some tattered books and a piece of chalk. He died in the dirt in front of horrified pupils.

Fifteen days earlier, Taliban guerrillas had come in the darkness and posted a "night letter" on the door of his farmhouse, telling the 50-year-old teacher to stay away from the school if he wanted to stay alive.

Aref, who earned just $50 a month, stood his ground. One of the first victims in the resurgent Taliban's dirty war on education, he gave his life trying to teach Afghan children that there is more to theirs than endless war.

After the U.S. joined with anti-Taliban militias five years ago to bring down the Islamist government, one of the biggest changes was in education. The Taliban, whose name means "students," regard Western-style education as a direct threat to the vision of a pure Islamic state. Its followers regard modern education as a morally toxic force of Western colonialism.

The Taliban's founders learned their disdain for most things modern in radical religious schools in Pakistan, where the only legitimate subject is study of the Koran. Extremist mullahs teach a harsh version of Islam that professes to be a return to traditions established by the prophet Muhammad.

A decade ago, when the Taliban swept across southern Afghanistan to seize the capital, Kabul, the mullahs issued edicts closing the women's university and most girls' schools. A collapsing infrastructure made it difficult for many boys to attend school as well.

When schools reopened in 2002 after the ouster of the Taliban regime, only about a third of Afghanistan's school-age children were in class. Today, the World Bank says, the figure is 87%, about 6.5 million pupils, a reflection of the hope of Afghan parents that the U.S.-backed government will be able to bring their country into the modern world. Some aid workers estimate the figure is much lower.

The United States has distributed textbooks and supplies, trained 50,000 teachers and rebuilt 672 schools.

But once again, education is under pressure from the Taliban. The militants are active once more across at least half of the country, including the southern province of Helmand, where Aref died in December 2005. Afghanistan's corrupt police and weak army are unable to provide much security.

Over the last year, insurgents have burned at least 146 schools, and insecurity has forced 215 others to close, the Afghan Education Ministry says. Zuhoor Afghan, an advisor to Education Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, says about 220,000 students have quit school because they fear for their lives.

To his wife and their seven children, and the many villagers who respected him, Aref was a mujahid, a courageous man engaged in a holy struggle to defeat ignorance and hatred so Afghanistan might know peace.

"He loved teaching," said his brother, Mohammed Rafiq Mohammedi. "It was important to him because he wanted students to learn what he knew and build the nation, to work for the people."

Continuing threats

The day after Aref died, none of his school's 1,300 students or their teachers showed up for class.

Their principal, Noor Mohammed, spent weeks trying to undo the damage, sitting with parents for hours, trying to convince them they had to keep the school open.

"They said, 'Unless you guarantee the security of our children, we will not allow them to go to school,' " he recalled outside the deserted school recently. "I said, 'I cannot guarantee the lives of your children, but they must study as much as they can.' "

As he desperately tried to reassure parents and children, Mohammed received his own night letter, which was posted on the gate of the local mosque for all to see.

"Drop this business of teaching and the school or you will be responsible for your own death," it warned. "If you continue, you will have to wash your hands of your life."

Like Aref, the principal kept going, but he couldn't vanquish the terror sown by the Taliban or protect his school.

Even where Taliban violence isn't threatening schools, Afghanistan's other problems are. Across the country, schools are in crisis because of corrupt contractors, shoddy building practices and a chronic shortage of textbooks and trained teachers, said Afghan, the Education Ministry official.

"If they have teachers, they don't have books," he said. "If they have books, they have no chairs. If they have fancy buildings, they have no toilets."

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