Taliban use beheadings and beatings to keep Afghanistan's schools closed

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The Independent Online

The letter pinned overnight to the wall of the mosque in Kandahar was succinct. "Girls going to school need to be careful for their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered then the blame will be on their parents."

Today the local school stands empty, victim of what amounts to a Taliban war on knowledge. The liberal wind of change that swept the country in 2001 is being reversed. By the conservative estimate of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 100,000 students have been terrorised out of schools in the past year. The number is certainly far higher and many teachers have been murdered, some beheaded.

In the province of Zabul a teacher and female MP, Toor Peikai, said yesterday: "There are 47 schools in my province but only three are open." Only one teaches girls. It is 200 metres from a large US military base in the provincial capital.

Across the south, schools burn during the night. According to a bleak report released by Human Rights Watch today at least 200 have been destroyed in the past year and half. Their blackened shells, many of them new buildings constructed with foreign aid money, are visible from the ever more dangerous road south to Kandahar.

The fate of the mixed-sex Sheikh Zai Middle School, on the outskirts of a community in the mountains of Maruf district is sadly not atypical. A local witness told Human Rights Watch what happened when the Taliban came: "They went to each class, took out their long knives .... locked the children in two rooms, where the children were severely beaten with sticks and asked, 'will you come to school now?'"

The six teachers later told residents what happened to them. They were taken out of school and blindfolded, then they were continually hit and were taken to nearby mountains on foot.

All six were separated and nobody knew where the other was. The Taliban asked them individually, "Why are you working for Mr Bush and Karzai?" They said, "We are educating our children with books -we know nothing about Bush or Karzai, we are just educating our children." After that they were beaten and let go.

The beatings were sufficiently serious that they remain handicapped. One of them had his leg broken and he cannot walk or work. One of the others still has problems with his hand and cannot use it.

The headmaster was later targeted. He was beaten with a gun butt and later shot in the thigh.

This summer, across the south of Afghanistan, the Taliban have returned. They boast the same medieval world vision but their numbers are unprecedented, their weapons abundant, and their coffers full of money from wealthy Pakistani and Gulf State patrons and from the proceeds of drug trafficking.

And what was, until this year, characterised as an increasingly vicious "low-level insurgency" has become a war. A palpable terror grips the south of the country, where overstretched Western forces battle an enemy that melts in and out of the local populace at will, and anyone associated with the foreigners or the central government is a target for violent reprisals.

Faced with collapsing security and insurgents who are flowing back and forth from safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the Western forces in the south are resorting to more extreme measures.

Yesterday, Operation Mountain Thrust, the 11,000-strong coalition offensive in the south, claimed to have killed another 40 insurgents in a strike on a house in Uruzgan. The two months since the start of Mountain Thrust have seen more than 600 killed in the south, the vast majority of them Taliban fighters.

But increasingly figures within both the Afghan government and international community are questioning whether killing such huge numbers of people is quelling the insurgency or simply fuelling popular resentment.

"It is not acceptable that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying," an exasperated and increasingly unpopular Hamid Karzai said in June. "In the past three to four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. Even if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land."

In May, the coalition dropped bombs in Afghanistan on no fewer than 750 occasions, more than the ordnance dropped in Iraq. On Sunday night, bombs were again lighting up the sky, amid a dull rumble in Ghazni province.