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Afghanistan: Despite War And Poverty, Desire To Learn Still Strong

  • Bruce Pannier

The news from Afghanistan in recent months has been dominated by images of destruction and poverty, but there is another side to what is happening in the country. The pursuit of education is one example. A walk down the streets of Kabul proves that Afghans -- despite the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam -- never lost their hunger for education and continue to improve their minds.

Kabul, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A typical story of life under the Taliban is that of Farid Abdullah.

He is 28 and says he drives a taxi for a living, but not by choice. Abdullah started training as a flight engineer, but in the last days of the then-President Najibullah, Afghanistan's last communist leader, he was drafted. He continued as a soldier during the dark period of the Afghan capital from 1992-96 when the bulk of destruction was done to Kabul as rival groups fought for control of the city.

When the Taliban seized the city in September 1996, they considered there to be no need for a young man like Farid to learn flight engineering. Driving a taxi became one of the only ways he could support his family. But he says he still dreams of returning to school.

"When I was at school in the eighth grade, there were many English courses in Kabul, especially at the established course called TOLO. I studied English there up to the fourth semester, but when the situation worsened during the government of Najibullah, they sent young boys to the army, and I went and enrolled in the air force. I couldn't continue my English lessons, and now if I find the opportunity I want to learn English, and other languages as well."

Ahmed Khalil is 17 years old and speaks three local languages -- Dari, Pashtu, and Urdu. But he also speaks English. He learned it on his own during the Taliban years when there was no formal training in that language.

"I learned English [because] I was very fond of learning English, so I started learning English [in the days] before the Taliban. I studied for one month. I started learning English again after two or three years. I listened to BBC news in order to support my English. I had some magazines, some newspapers. Now I think I don't know English, and I want to support and improve my English."

Khalil's knowledge is not limited to language skills. He can tell you about historical figures such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler. He proudly reviews geography, pointing out what countries border one another in Europe. He also correctly notes that there are two Washingtons in the United States -- the nation's capital on the East Coast, and the state on the West Coast located, as he put it, "somewhere north of California."

His reasons for learning many of these facts, he says, have roots in Afghanistan's recent history: "I hate killing humans. When somebody says [that they] killed a man or a woman, a human, I hate him. So I wanted at that time and also now to know about the killing of people, and I found out that first I should read books about wars. So first I read the books about the First World War and the Second World War. I like detective books and space books [also]."

Normal enough comments from a young man in most countries, but Afghanistan is not exactly a normal country at the moment. As Abdullah and Khalil spoke, two-wheeled carts -- some pulled by donkeys, some by men -- passed by carrying various goods to market. The hill that stands in the middle of Kabul, and the homes constructed on it, bear the scars of rockets and bombs. And trucks filled with armed men continue to pass on city streets, despite recent regulations demanding that armed Afghans leave the city.

Kabul is not like the rest of Afghanistan, and it would be wrong to assume there are many others like Abdullah and Khalil all around the country with some education and a strong desire to continue to learn. But it is a hopeful sign that there are still some people like them.

Fifteen schools are scheduled to open their doors in the Afghan capital today. Among the students expected to resume their studies are the city's girls, who were prohibited from attending school during the Taliban's five-year ban.

The Afghan Education Ministry says some 10,000 girls responded to its radio messages urging them to register for school.