Afghan students leave home to find a safe place to learn

 

JALALABAD, Afghanistan

The first time insurgents burned down Hazratullah's school, he helped rebuild it with donated carpets and salvaged chalkboards. But when Taliban fighters returned with guns and gasoline, torching his makeshift seventh-grade classroom, Hazratullah decided it was time to leave.

"We knew then that if we wanted to go to school, we would have to move," said the 14-year-old, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

He and his three cousins packed clothes and blankets. Then their parents drove them to a refuge they had heard rumors about — a place for children whose schools had been shuttered or destroyed by the Taliban. Ten miles outside this eastern Afghan city, they found the Pashtunistan School: a haven from insurgents, a chance for Hazratullah to finish seventh grade.

But Hazratullah's new school is also a monument to one of his government's greatest failures — its inability to protect students and teachers in vast stretches of territory that have been effectively ceded back to the Taliban. On its campus, 350 boys from across Afghanistan swap stories about Taliban fighters beating their teachers and setting their classrooms on fire.

Afghan officials acknowledge that with poor security in much of the country, the only way to educate a large portion of the population is to pluck children out of Taliban-dominated districts and move them to safer areas.

There are two Afghanistans, they say: one where public education can be protected, and another where it cannot. That acknowledgment reflects a stark shift from the years of U.S.-funded efforts to rebuild and reopen schools in traditional insurgent strongholds.

The new reality is reflected in a NATO talking point intended to convey how concentrated violence in Afghanistan has become and how much of the country enjoys relative peace.

"Eighty percent of the enemy attacks take place in areas where only 20 percent of the Afghan population lives," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently told reporters.

But what of that less fortunate 20 percent, a figure that includes millions of children?

With the Taliban burning schoolhouses and threatening students in much of the south and east, educators here have rechanneled their ambition. Part of the problem, Afghan officials say, is that the United States built many schools in places where security could not be maintained. More than 90 percent of Afghanistan's 500 shuttered schools are in four provinces in the country's volatile southeast.

"The reality is that in some areas, the lack of security means there is no access to education," said Farooq Wardak, the Afghan minister of education. "Either we can move those students to safer places, or they will remain uneducated and easy for the Taliban to absorb."

Although there are exponentially more children enrolled in school than there were when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, opposition to public education in many districts appears intractable.

The Taliban's antipathy toward the education of girls is well known. But boys' schools, too, are in the Taliban's cross hairs, because they are viewed as an extension of the government and, ultimately, of the West. Classes organized and funded by the Karzai administration are viewed as an affront to the Taliban in places the group effectively controls.

Each student at the Pashtunistan School has his own story about the Taliban encroaching on classrooms, or crossfire making the trip to school impossible.

"They beat our teachers with sticks," said Abdul Karim, from Nurestan province.

"They threatened to behead us if we kept going," said Noorgullah, from Konar province.

"They burned it to the ground," said Nakibullah, from Paktia province.

The boys sleep side by side in rooms adorned with class schedules and pictures of their native provinces. Compared with those places, life here feels easy and safe.

When the boys return home for rare visits, they leave their textbooks at school, for fear of being caught by the Taliban.

About half of all schools are closed in Zabul province, where the NATO troop drawdown has been particularly rapid. About a third of schools are closed in Helmand and a quarter in Kandahar, according to the Afghan government's tally. In several districts where families have sent sons to Pashtunistan, the insurgency isn't the biggest problem. There simply aren't enough trained teachers to maintain a school.

A number of the shuttered schools were built by foreign powers, shiny tributes to a new Afghanistan. Only a few years ago, Western officials proclaimed that public education would reach even the country's darkest and most dangerous corners.

"The enemies, they don't want to let innocent students get educated," said Sharifullah Naseri, Zabul's provincial spokesman.

Some Western-funded schools never opened because of security concerns. Others were closed by the insurgency days after being inaugurated. Some schools survived for years, like Hazratullah's, but collapsed as security grew weaker.

"Wherever I drive, I see schools built by the U.S. that were closed or never finished," said Tamim Nuristani, the governor of Nurestan province, from which more than two dozen of Pashtunistan's students hail.

The Pashtunistan School sits on a few acres of farmland 50 miles from Pakistan. It was built three decades ago, amid insurgency against the Soviets, as a haven for ethnic Pashtun children from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. It was named for the autonomous Pashtun nation that many here strive to one day create and was seen as a place where students could be educated with their fellow tribesmen.

The Afghan government is experimenting with boarding schools in several of the country's largest cities, where stability has been maintained largely because of NATO's urban-centric security strategy. There are several boarding schools in Kabul. Others are set to open in the capitals of Helmand and Ghazni provinces, which are safe enough to operate schools, although many rural districts in those provinces are under Taliban control. The Education Ministry hopes to open more boarding schools in coming years.

"These are places where education can be maintained and monitored, where the government is in control," Wardak said.

But that leaves dozens of school districts in areas where the Taliban wields more power than Western or Afghan forces — a dilemma for the Education Ministry.

In recent months, the insurgency's closure of schools has prompted anti-Taliban uprisings in a number of provinces, a development that U.S. and Afghan officials see as a positive sign.

In parts of the country where the Taliban remains in control, insurgents often inspect the curricula and handpick teachers but allow schools to remain open. The insurgency's inconsistent approach to education, many Afghan officials and analysts argue, speaks to its fragmentation.

But for children living in districts where insurgents have demolished schools or threatened teachers, that lack of consistency doesn't mean much.

"We have no plans to return home," Hazratullah said. "Here, there are classrooms. There are teachers. At home, there is nothing."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee