Class war: battle to educate Afghan girls and boys hindered by fear of Taliban retribution

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The Independent Online

On Afghanistan's arid Shomali Plains the school bell rings and children rush from class with a familiar roar. But there all semblance of normality stops. The bell is a spent artillery shell; there are no banging desks for there are no desks; a large sign proclaims the area free of mines, but you can never be sure.

This area, two days' walk from Kabul, is known as the Devil's Garden because of its macabre harvest of severed limbs and shattered lives. Black Hawks and Apache attack helicopters clatter constantly overhead but not a single child looks up, for helicopters, machine guns and rockets are routine. New textbooks, exercise books or even a pencil would be infinitely more exciting for the children of Naharebolla High School, but teaching materials are much rarer than military hardware.

Nur Hallah, nine, is one of the students wanting more books. After five years in a Pakistani refugee camp he is back home and top of his class. War has taken its toll on his family. "There was fighting with the Russians, the mujahedin and the Taliban so my sister couldn't go to school," he says. "My brother lost his legs because of a mine." His family were fortunate that the Taliban used their house as a base, for little else was left standing when they returned.

Now there is a concerted - armed - campaign to keep such children away from school. Education - particularly that of girls - is associated with the often-hated government and the occupying Western forces. Their opponents - including the Taliban - burn schools and attack teachers. The Ministry of Education said 267 schools had been forced to stop classes - a third of them in the south where five years after 9/11, fighting is intensifying as the Nato-led troops confront a resurgent opposition.

Today, Save the Children, which has supported Nur's school since 1999, is launching the biggest global campaign in its 85-year history to help get children back to school in conflict zones. According to the charity, at least 43 million primary school-aged children live in fragile states affected by armed conflict, including Democratic Republic of Congo, the Horn of Africa, Colombia and Sri Lanka.

The Luddite campaign to return Afghanistan to the Dark Ages is reaching ever closer to the centre and north, where the Shomali Plains lie. On Sunday, the provincial governor Abdul Hakim Taniwal was assassinated in Khost. Mr Taniwal, a former professor in Melbourne, Australia, was a supporter of education for both sexes. The Taliban claimed responsibility; nine more people were murdered at his funeral yesterday.

It is in the south that the real horror goes on. Every day, schools are attacked and when they are not, sinister "night letters" are pinned to their doors threatening retribution on teachers, students and parents.

Human Rights Watch recorded at least 204 reported physical attacks or attempted attacks (such as bombs planted but found before they exploded) on school buildings from 1 January 2005 to 21 June 2006. That's a lot of scared children. Many are now too terrified to go to other schools.

Dr Najia Hashimzada works in Balkh, in the north, where three female aid workers were killed recently and five schools have been set alight this year. She travels in unmarked cars, wearing a head-to-toe burqa while visiting the villages where she works. "Some schools have been closed and some have moved into people's homes," she says. Many children are not turning up because they may be attacked on the way.

Recently in the central region's once impregnable Panjshir Valley a bomb was detonated at Bazarak High School. It caused little damage. But if any school should be safe, it is this one, for Bazarak is Ahmed Shah Masood's alma mater. Masood fought off the Russians, and their puppet president, Mohammed Najibullah, and led resistance to the Taliban. His murder - exactly five years ago - by al-Qa'ida suicide bombers posing as journalists, elevated him to the status of a patron saint.

"Everyone has enemies," the local police chief says when asked who planted the bomb. Mohammed Ibrahim, the girls' school headmaster, was more specific: "We have a lot of enemies against Islam. This is a centre of education. Such people are related to al-Qa'ida."