Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Herat Schools Get Belated Boost

Long-lost Russian scientific supplies set to benefit students 25 years after arrival.
By Shafi Ferozi

A vast hoard of school laboratory equipment, chemicals and samples sent by the Soviet Union 25 years ago has been found in a warehouse in Herat province and is now finally about to benefit Afghan students.

Although some of the compounds have deteriorated, about 500 schools will get equipment for a range of chemical, physical, biological, mathematical, geological and electronic experiments. The find even includes human skeletons.

It was all sent at a time when Mohammad Najibullah was the Soviet-backed president of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union had thousands of troops in the country following the 1979 Russian-led invasion.

Now the discovery in a warehouse at Herat’s Mahjuba Herawi girls’ school has sparked a row over who was to blame for leaving the shipment, valued at 100,000 US dollars, to moulder.

Arwin Taheri, deputy-director of education department in Herat, said, "The materials were supposed to be distributed to all the schools in Herat. However, they were taken to the Mahjuba Herawi school’s depot as the depots of the education department were being renovated at the time.”

Taheri said a shortage of staff and a lack of familiarity with the Russian language caused it to be overlooked, although he admitted education officials at the time were also negligent.

Some of the materials were expensive and it was ironic that education professionals had often complained about a lack of laboratories in Herat schools.

Taheri is still happy that the schools will finally get the supplies, "After the materials were found, a four-member delegation including the director of the science centre of the ministry of education came to Herat and explained how Herat teachers could use the materials.”

Schools will get the equipment in time for the start of the new education year that begins in mid-2010.

However, Nasima Roya, deputy principal of the Mahjuba Herawi school, is not sure that all the materials will be usable, "When they were moving the materials, I noticed that some had turned black inside the boxes as if they were burned, particularly chemical materials which [decompose] over time due to exposure to the air.”

The supplies included human and animal skeletons, geological samples, maps, compasses, globes, microscopes, electronics, laboratory equipment and possibly telescopes, she said.

Aziza Tokhi, the school principal for the past 15 years, said she was never authorised by the education ministry to check the warehouse or use the materials. The discovery, she said, was made when the school asked the ministry to shift the goods because it needed a prayer room for pupils.

Some of the school’s teachers reject the idea that the problem was a lack of teaching professionals or knowledge of Russian, insisting that there were sufficient numbers of adequately trained staff who would have been able to read the labels on the storage boxes. They blame negligent Soviet-era education officials.

Some students IWPR spoke to are bitter about not having access to the Soviet era consignment. Zemarai Barakzai, 19, who is hoping to go to university, says he might have benefited if the materials had been available, "I was unable to enter the medical university which was my chosen field. I curse those who have deprived us of the use of the laboratory equipment."

Other students were happy at the prospect of using the supplies. Mohammad Noman Soltani, 15, who studies at Soltan Ghiasoddin Ghori school, told IWPR, "The past is the past. We should not waste our time trying to find out who is responsible ... It is important for us to think about the future by starting using the laboratory."

Shafi Ferozi is an IWPR trainee in Herat.