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Afghanistan: Kabul University Hopes For Quick Return To Normal

  • Charles Recknagel

The prospect of a new political order in Afghanistan -- beginning with the inauguration of an interim administration on 22 December -- is raising hopes in many Afghan institutions of a return to normal life after decades of turmoil. One such institution is Kabul University, where teachers are preparing to welcome the return of female students when classes resume in spring.

Kabul, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kabul University is on a once-graceful campus that now clearly shows the ravages of war and administrative neglect.

The university is on the western edge of the city and, in the mid-1990s, was on the front line of Afghanistan's factional warfare, during which a large number of the medical school's buildings were reduced to hollow shells or rubble. The Taliban's seizure of Kabul in 1996 brought peace to the capital, but no money for repairs. Today, the university's 14 faculties are struggling with everything from glassless windows to no central heating to severe shortages of equipment and professors.

But with the Taliban now out of Kabul and a new interim administration due to take power in just four days, many at the university are now hopeful that the campus may again resume its normal life. That normal life was once one of a broad-based and coeducational secular institution, which was a center for intellectuals, scholars and students from around Afghanistan and Central Asia.

At the university's medical school, administrators are again interviewing female students ahead of classes due to resume this spring. Lessons are suspended now due to cold weather and the lack of a way to heat classrooms, but many of the female students are using the time to review materials and reacquaint themselves with their professors.

One of the female students is Sohaila, who gives only her first name. She pulls back her burqa to speak to teachers and a foreign journalist, but still wears the full-face veil in the medical school's empty corridors.

Sohaila says she is delighted she can now come back to resume her third year of medical school after the Taliban banned female students from the university in 1996: "We feel happy that the faculty has reopened and all the students can benefit from this and continue their studies. When we heard the news that the faculty had reopened, we studied our lessons at home and took the exams and qualified [to return at the third-year level]."

Shortly before abandoning Kabul early in November, the Taliban began allowing some women back into the medical school to train with female teachers on how to treat female patients. That was to accommodate the Taliban's own prohibitions against contacts between unrelated men and women, which made it impossible for male doctors to help ill women. But the Taliban continued to bar all women from the university's other departments.

The medical school's administrator, Dr. Afzal Anwar, says that before the Taliban, women made up some 30 percent of the medical students. But in earlier years, particularly during the factional fighting that followed the defeat of Soviet forces in 1989, the percentage of women sometimes reached 80 percent, as men were drafted into competing militias.

Today, Anwar says it is too early to say how many women will return to their classes or qualify in state admission examinations to begin the seven-year program. But he expects women to again make up a large part of the school's students, some 200 to 300 of whom graduate each year to become practicing doctors.

The administrator says the Taliban left their mark on the medical school in several ways, none of which is likely to be long-lasting.

One was an effort to increase the amount of religious instruction medical students receive. Anwar says that in the militia's last six months of power, they insisted on increasing the curriculum's standard two hours a week of religious courses to a full 10 hours a week: "They didn't restrict [the medical school's curriculum], but they mostly wanted to add religious subjects. For example, we had only two hours every week in which religious subjects were taught. But during the past five or six months, the Taliban wanted 10 hours each week."

The school is now returning to two hours a week, mostly focusing on health injunctions in Islam, which doctors need to know for their work in this Muslim country.

Anwar says the Taliban also required most medical training to be restricted to the theoretical, by banning the use of models, cadavers, and even charts that show the full human body. Thus, while students could study a picture of the heart, they could not study a picture showing its location in the human body -- the representation of which the Taliban considered to be a blasphemous attempt to reproduce God's creation.

The school is now planning to reintroduce the full use of models, diagrams, and charts as quickly as it can acquire them.

But other legacies of Afghanistan's history of warfare and of Taliban misrule will be harder to reverse. The medical school was regularly ransacked during the factional warfare of the mid-1990s and today has almost no equipment. Of the 300 microscopes used in the school's laboratories 10 years ago, only four remain. Of 10 refrigerators, nine were stolen. Sinks, plumbing and window frames were all pillaged and need replacing. The only modern facilities are the library and some computers provided in recent years by the Loma Linda University in California to enable the school to keep functioning.

The medical school, like the other faculties of Kabul University, now desperately needs outside assistance if it is to contribute effectively to reconstructing Afghanistan's civil society. That needed assistance ranges from school equipment and books even to buses for student transportation. Teachers, particularly in medicine and the sciences, need grants again to travel abroad to learn of developments in their fields and visiting professors from foreign institutions are welcome.

Mohammad Akhbar Aqeb, the general director of students, says Kabul University's staff is contacting universities abroad to reestablish cooperative ties. It is also trying to woo back some 25 percent of the university's professors who left the campus, or the country, during the Taliban's rule. At the same time, the school is working to once again put professionals in top administrative positions, most of which the militia filled with its own unqualified appointees.

In the meantime, the university's professors and administrators continue to work without pay as they now await back wages that are some six months in arrears. The Taliban stopped regularly paying the salaries of government workers amid financial difficulties during the summer and the Northern Alliance leaders who entered Kabul in November have done no better. Paying government back wages will now be one of the first challenges for the new interim administration set to take office this weekend.