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Afghans Seek to Open Digital Doors

November 26, 2002

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ Adjusting her black veil to get a better look at the computer screen, 14-year-old Fatima points to something she just typed.

``It’s good?″ she asks, a smile brightening her freckled face.

``Yes,″ answers Hashem, a 18-year-old computer enthusiast who recently returned to this southwestern city after living in Pakistan as a refugee. Like many Afghans, they use only one name. ``Now see if you can save it.″

Hashem is helping fellow returnee Ehsanullah Omer run Kandahar’s first and only free computer and English language training center, a project being funded by Kandahar’s governor to give men and women the ability to acquire the skills Afghanistan will need if it wants to fully join the world community.

With a small staff working in a former Taliban garrison, Omer, 32, wants to open digital ``doors″ that will not only train Kandahar’s people for the challenges ahead, but also help them learn more about the U.S.-led coalition troops that allowed them to do it.

``Afghans have been denied the outside world and we want to open those doors,″ Omer said. ``If they don’t know how to use a computer, they can’t do that. International peacekeeping forces will be here for years. To develop a positive attitude about these people we have to teach them who they are and where they are from.″

There are about 4,000 U.S. troops stationed just outside this city of more than 300,000 people. The capital, Kabul, is patrolled by a 4,800-strong multinational peacekeeping force.

The center is teaching 1,450 men and about 200 women to read and write in English and training them how to use a computer. Students range in age from 14 to 45 and lessons are in the evenings.

``They are a little weak in English, but we are improving it. They start out learning about the operating system and then programs and applications,″ Hashem said as he looked over a huddled group of 20 women crowded around a dozen computers.

Courses last four months and the entire training program runs two years. Kandahar residents can enroll for free, but the school is currently running on a first-come, first-serve basis and funding and space are already straining their limits.

``This is the only program of its kind in Afghanistan as far as we know,″ said Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for Gov. Ghul Agha Sherzai. Kandahar hopes to one day computerize its offices, he added, and will need trained people.

Tired of waiting for international aid, Kandahar has launched numerous small projects, from road construction to the restoration of war-damaged monuments. All are funded by locally collected taxes and customs duties.

When Omer approached Sherzai earlier this year, he readily agreed to give the man who taught his brothers English when they were refugees in Pakistan the $28,000 he asked for to buy 50 computers.

Sherzai also allowed Omer _ who ran a similar school in Pakistan _ to use a school in central Kandahar for his evening classes. He also covers the monthly operating costs of about $2,500. In return, Omer named the school after the governor.

Omer’s only big problem is that Kandahar, with its nearly nonexistent phone system, has no access to the Internet and is unlikely to anytime soon.

That’s a small problem for Rohul, a 35-year-old doctor who said she just wants to learn how to use a computer.

``I am interested to learn and also teach other people, in my family and other places,″ she said. ``It’s very good, we can improve our work or even get a better job if we know how to use computers. I really took this opportunity. Until recently I could do almost nothing.″

But even if the young girls and women are learning, some things don’t easily change in this deeply conservative city where the hardline Islamic Taliban movement was born.

As an evening chill spread cold desert dust across the school’s dirt-packed courtyard, the women, young and old, donned their burqas _ the head-to-foot coverings that were once required under the Taliban regime and are still in common use _ before they left.

``Bye, bye,″ Fatima chirped in English as the women filed past the armed troops guarding the school.

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