Taliban attacks on schools create 'lost generation'

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The Independent Online

Ghulam Rasul was leaving school when two gunmen walked in and opened fire. The 17-year-old died instantly. As other students and teachers fled in terror, the shooting continued. Two more people were hit.

The attack at Kartilaya High School in Lashkar Gar was just one in a series which is crippling Afghanistan's education system. At least 165 schools and colleges have been burnt down or forced to close so far by a resurgent Taliban and their Islamist allies.

Five years after the end of the Afghan war and Tony Blair's famous pledge that "this time we will not walk away", it seems the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are back with a vengeance, and one of their main targets is the country's education system.

The campaign is intended, say educationalists and human rights groups, to terrorise families into keeping children uneducated, unemployable, and a recruitment pool for the Islamists.

Teachers are the main targets. Some have been beheaded, others shot in front of their classes. One was killed while attending his father's funeral.

The years of fighting the Russians, the subsequent civil war and Taliban rule has produced a "lost generation" in education. International agencies and aid organisations speak of their difficulties in finding qualified people to run projects.

Now another lost generation is being created. The education system of modern Afghanistan is anathema to the Taliban and Islamist extremists because it is inclusive of girls, and offers secular subjects for study. They have declared that only madrassas (Muslim religious schools) meeting their approval will be allowed to operate.

There are bitter complaints from Afghans that neither their government, nor American and British forces, are doing anything like enough to stop the murderous targeting of children and schools. British commanders say they will address the problem when more troops arrive.

The attack at Kartilaya High, which has 4,200 pupils, about half of them girls, was in the centre of Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital of Helmand, where a massive British force is now being deployed. The school is 15 minutes drive from an American base, now being taken over by the British, and just 500 metres from an Afghan police post. Police did not turn up for half an hour after the shooting. The Americans failed to turn up at all.

Asadullah Ali, 20, who ran a sweet shop at the school, was shot in the neck during the raid two months ago.

"I was very lucky," he said. "It was also very lucky that it was just before the classes broke for the afternoon, otherwise there would have been a lot more children in the playground."

Sabira Ishmail, a 15-year- old girl, knew Ghulam Rasul and his family well. "He came from another province and stayed with his uncle. His cousin still comes to this school. Of course we are very frightened by what has happened," she said.

The killings of teachers are normally preceded by a warning "night letter" from the Islamists ordering schools to be shut down. Retribution is taken if there is a failure to comply.

Haji Abdul Kassim, the director of education for Helmand province, said: "In Helmand alone we have had 18 schools burnt down and 66 others which have been shut down because of threats.

"We are talking about thousands of children being affected. We have also had eight teachers killed.

"I have got one of these night letters threatening to kill me, but what can we do? It is our job to educate the young. If we don't, Afghanistan will always remain one of the poorest countries in the world.

"But why don't the security forces, our own, the Americans and the British protect these schools? What is the point of them being here if they cannot protect even children?"

n Supplies of food, water and electricity were restored to inmates at Kabul's main jail yesterday after prisoners agreed to halt violence, officials said. Security forces were surrounding Pulicharkhi jail, where al-Qa'ida and Taliban prisoners incited a riot over compulsory prison uniforms on Saturday.