Afghan Girls Return to School
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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Girls in bright red dresses and transparent green headscarves took center stage at a ceremony Saturday marking the first day of the school year in Afghanistan, where thousands of girls returned to the classroom for the first time in years.
Afghanistan’s interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai looked on as eager students squirmed in their seats in Amani High School’s auditorium and sang songs about the joys of education. Amani is a boys’ school, but girls enrolled in other schools also attended the ceremony.
``Today we cry out of happiness,″ said Karzai, who choked with emotion during his speech and had to stop talking briefly to collect himself. ``He’s crying,″ one girl whispered to a friend.
Karzai called schoolchildren ``the future of our great country.″
Education in Afghanistan has been severely eroded by more than two decades of war and five years of Taliban rule, during which girls over 8 were barred from school and boys were mostly taught about Islam.
Some girls enrolled in catch-up classes as early as last November, as Taliban rule was collapsing under the pressure of the U.S.-led military offensive. But the new school year started Saturday, the first working day after Afghans celebrated the Islamic lunar calendar’s new year Thursday and the start of spring.
There are an estimated 4.4 million primary school age children in Afghanistan. The U.N. Children’s Fund, which launched a campaign over the winter to encourage parents to send their children to school, said 1.5 million primary school children would start school Saturday and that it hoped another 500,000 would be enrolled by May.
Even before the Taliban took power in 1996, schools in Kabul were rarely open because of the factional fighting that began when the pro-Moscow government collapsed in 1992.
Many schools in the capital were destroyed in the fighting among the factions _ some of them now part of the interim government _ that flattened whole neighborhoods and killed an estimated 50,000 people.
As the new year got under way, the enthusiasm to start couldn’t disguise the poor condition of the schools, many riddled with bullet holes and badly scarred by rocket and mortar fire.
Across the country, there are also serious problems with supplies and space. Aid organizations have used helicopters and donkeys in efforts to get supplies to isolated schools, said Mahboob Shareef, the head of UNICEF for northern Afghanistan.
At the Tajrubouwi School in Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north, there are 3,700 students and not enough classrooms. Girls attend school in three shifts, said the principal, Kemia Nazari.
The teachers have not yet been paid, Nazari said, and she pleaded for tents to use as classrooms and for basic supplies like pens, chalk and notebooks, saying she only had enough for one-tenth of her students.
Still, she said, ``students are so happy that they don’t care about chairs or black boards.″
In a Dari language class at Tajrubouwi, 1st and 3rd graders sat together because of the lack of classrooms _ and their teacher had to stop her lesson when she used up the only piece of chalk in the room.
At Tajrubouwi, 8-year-old Saghar was attending school for the very first time and wore a new backpack for the occasion. She took private classes for the last three months and could already read.
``I want to be a doctor,″ she said. ``It’s important to read.″
The effort to restoring Afghanistan’ educational system has mostly been funded by foreign countries. Japan contributed 60 percent of the money spent so far, and the United States has contributed 4 million textbooks.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan said this was only the beginning.
``We cannot disappoint the children of Afghanistan,″ he said. ``Our work should not stop.″