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Disembowelled, then torn apart: The price of daring to teach girls

The gunmen came at night to drag Mohammed Halim away from his home, in front of his crying children and his wife begging for mercy.

The 46-year-old schoolteacher tried to reassure his family that he would return safely. But his life was over, he was part-disembowelled and then torn apart with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, the remains put on display as a warning to others against defying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

Mr Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession by the Islamists at Ghazni, a strategic point on the routes from Kabul to the south and east which has become the scene of fierce clashes between the Taliban and US and Afghan forces.

The day we arrived, an Afghan policemen and eight insurgents died during an ambush in an outlying village. Rockets were found, primed to be fired into Ghazni City during a visit by the American ambassador a few days previously.

But, as in the rest of Afghanistan, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of this conflict. At the village of Qara Bagh, the family of Mr Halim are distraught and terrified. His cousin, Ahmed Gul, shook his head: "They killed him like an animal. No, no. We do not kill animals like that, it would be haram. They took away a father and a husband, they had no pity. We are all very worried. Please go now, you see those men standing over there? They are watching. It is dangerous for you, and for us."

Fatima Mushtaq, the director of education at Ghazni, has had repeated death threats, the notorious "night letters". Her gender, as well as her refusal to send girls home from school, has made her a particular source of hatred for Islamist zealots.

"I think they killed him that way to frighten us, otherwise why make a man suffer so much? Mohammed Halim and his family were good friends of ours and we are very, very upset by what has happened. He came to me when the threats first began and asked what he should do. I told him to move somewhere safe. I think he was trying to arrange that when they came and took him," she said.

The threats against Ms Mushtaq also extend to her husband, Sayyid Abdul, and their eight children. "When the first letters arrived, I tried to hide them from my husband," she said. "But then he found the next few. He said we must stand together. We talked, and we decided that we must tell the children. So that they can be prepared, but it is not a good way for them to grow up."

Ms Mushtaq is familiar with the ways of the Taliban. During their rule she and her sister ran secret schools for girls at their home. The Taliban beat them for teaching the girls algebra.