Girls' Schools Hit by Arson Attacks

Parents and students express mixture of fear and defiance after attacks on schools.

Girls' Schools Hit by Arson Attacks

Parents and students express mixture of fear and defiance after attacks on schools.

Wednesday, 2 March, 2005

Looking over the charred remains of his school, headmaster Habibullah seemed as unhappy as if someone had set fire to his own house.

“We built this school with lots of effort,” he said. “Local people bought these burnt floors. We only completed the registration process a month ago and a Swedish organisation had promised to donate some stationery.

“The number of the students was increasing day by day. Unfortunately, some cruel people put an end to all of our dreams.”

Recent attacks on girls’ schools in five provinces of Afghanistan have damaged attendance and morale as well as classrooms.

Large numbers of female students in some of the districts hit by the arson and rocket attacks are not turning up for class.

In Logar province, for example, attendance in the two districts where schools were attacked has decreased by as much as 50 per cent, said Ghulam Hazrat Sediqi, provincial head of education. Parents are concerned over their childrens’ safety, fearing that there will be more such incidents or even that their older daughters will be kidnapped and raped, he told IWPR.

But deputy minister of education Mohammad Moin Marastyal insisted that there had not been an overall decrease in attendance nationwide. “Parents were worried for some days afterward, but we assured them that the police will deal with the problem,” he said.

Over the past several months, girls’ schools in Kandahar, Sarapol, Zabul, Logar and Wardak provinces have been attacked. Most followed written threats posted in towns and villages in these regions, ordering residents not to send their girls to school. Threats were also posted in Kunar, Helmand and Laghman provinces in October, officials said.

Under the Taleban regime, girls’ schools all over Afghanistan were closed, as the student militia disapproved of female education.

Habibullah, headmaster of the Bibi Aisha primary school, in the Jalrez district of Wardak, said he did not know who burned down his school but said the arsonists had warned him against teaching his female pupils.

Mohammad Azim, one of four night-watchman employed by shopkeepers in the local bazaar to guard their stores, said he and his colleagues managed to prevent the nearby school from burning down completely, “When we saw the flames we hurried and put out the fire in an hour.”

The 190 pupils are now being taught in rooms at the closed Mohammed Khan Hotel - no one else has been willing to offer space, fearing they may suffer the same fate as the school.

Habibullah and Azim both protested about the poor security in the region. “Everyone has a gun and looks after themselves,” the latter said.

IWPR approached the chief of police of Jalrez district about the complaints. The official, who would not give his name, said, “Don’t concern yourself with these issues. You know about them and I also do. It will be better to ignore them.”

But local residents said they can’t ignore the risk to their daughters. “We will never let our daughters go to school until the security situation gets better,” said Sarwar, a shopkeeper in Jalrez district of Wardak province, whose daughter had been attending a school that burned to the ground.

“These cruel people hung a printed threat in one of the other girls’ schools, saying they would fire rockets at it during the day if their parents did not stop sending their children.”

A 10-year-old girl named Feroza who came into the shop said she was sad that her school had been destroyed, and would attend class if alternative premises were found, “If school starts again, I’ll go because I am not afraid of threats.”

Local farmer, Mohammad Afzal, speaking in a cluster of nodding villagers, said,

“Our region is full of weapons. As long as the people are armed, we’ll never have any peace. They should all be collected. ISAF soldiers should come here and help us. Sure Kabul’s security is important, but we also need some protection. We want our children to be educated.”

In other provinces, parents and students expressed a similar mixture of the fear and defiance.

Qudsya, a pupil in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar, said she feared “the doors of education will once again be closed for us. I want to get an education like my brothers and help in the reconstruction of our country”.

Local resident Shokrullah told IWPR that people should not be intimidated by the threats and the warnings. “Literacy is sight. I will never allow my daughter to grow up illiterate and blind,” he said.

Yar Mohammad Khandan, the district’s director of education, said Shokrullah’s attitude was typical, “People are obviously worried by the threats, but the number of teachers and students going to schools has not decreased.”

Khandan said special workshops and seminars were being organised to help school staff and pupils cope with the threats. The childrens’ agency Unicef has meanwhile helped to clean up some of the damaged schools and offered tents to others.

Some students at the Fatema-tul-Zehra school in Narkh district of Wardak were undaunted, and continued to study in the yard after the private house where they were having classes was burned. But attendance dropped from 736 students to about 500 after the November 2 attack, said Nargisa, a teacher at the school.

Salma, one of her former students, said, “After the schools were burned, my father did not allow me to go to school.” Her father, Mohammad Asif, said his concern was justified, “People who burned the schools could kill my daughter any day. They are the enemies of education.”

Another concerned father, Mohammad Daud, kept his daughter home from school and said, “I will teach her at home until the security situation gets better.”

Wardak’s chief of police, Abdul Ahad, said his men were interrogating suspects, but he said officers would not post security guards at the schools because they were all located in private homes. Education officials said security was the responsibility of the police, not the education ministry.

Ahad said that written threats were posted at the schools after the attacks, saying “girls would be killed if they continue going to schools, because Americans and westerners want to lead our girls astray ”.

Interior ministry officials have ordered the provincial authorities to find those who attacked the schools. Although several arrests were made in Sarapol and Wardak provinces, the suspects were released for lack of evidence and no one has yet been charged, according to Helaluddin Helal, deputy minister of interior.

Mohammad Nassim Shafaq, Mohammad Hakim Basharaat, Neman Dost and Rahimullah Samander, independent journalists in Kabul, contributed to this report.

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