Until recently, the Hazarajat -- the central highland home of Afghanistan's impoverished Hazara community -- had no institutions of higher education. But a self-help effort to create the first Hazara university appeared to remedy that situation until it was destroyed by the Taliban. In this second of a three-part series on the Hazaras, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Bamiyan on efforts to restore higher education in the region.
Bamiyan, Afghanistan; 31 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The University of Bamiyan, the first university built specifically for Afghanistan's Hazara community, today stands in ruins.
Established seven years ago, the university still shows signs of what was once a bustling campus. The three main buildings form a broad courtyard planted with shade trees in the center of the spectacular Bamiyan Valley.
The valley itself is flanked on one side by a towering sandstone escarpment which was dominated by two giant carved Buddhas until the ancient statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March. The other side of the valley rises up sharply into a soaring range of snow-capped mountains.
But if the university's setting remains beautiful, its facilities are now barely recognizable. Two of the buildings were stripped of their doors and even window frames by the Taliban, who closed the school after capturing the city in September 1998. The third building, used by the Taliban as a barracks and communications center, was reduced to a shell by the U.S. air strikes, which routed the Taliban across Afghanistan in October and November. The only remaining evidence of the militia's presence is a destroyed anti-aircraft gun mounted on a truck in the middle of the courtyard.
Today, there are no students to interview, though before the university was closed some 400 to 500 men and women studied here. There is also no sign of the approximately 40 professors who once taught a full range of courses in the humanities and sciences. They were part of a flagship effort by the Hazaras' largest political party, the Hezb-i-Wahdat, to spark a renaissance among the country's 3-4 million Hazaras who inhabit the poorest region of the country and have long been marginalized by Afghanistan's dominant Pashtuns. The Hazaras were particularly targeted by the Pashtun-based Taliban because, unlike other Afghan communities, they practice Shiism -- something the Sunni fundamentalist militia considered to be outside of Islam.
Still, many people here remember the university and long for its rebirth. One of these is 17-year-old Saqhi Gharbani. His family fled to Kabul a year ago after his brother, who was a student at the university, was killed by the Taliban.
Now, Gharbani is back in Bamiyan and spends his weekdays teaching English for free to a group of boys and men who want to learn the language. He and three other untrained teachers have gathered together some 70 students in what they informally call the "Peace School." One of the places they conduct lessons is in an abandoned classroom at the ruined university, where they can always be sure to find an empty space.
Gharbani says he learned English in Kabul by working during the day and paying for lessons at night. Now he says he wants to pass on his knowledge to other displaced persons who are returning to Bamiyan with few useful skills.
"Before the Taliban soldiers came, I was a student [in Bamiyan], and when I went to Kabul I continued my lessons," Gharbani said. "I had a lot of problems [doing that]. When I was in Kabul I worked every day until 3 o'clock. And after 3 o'clock I went to courses and continued my lessons."
Gharbani says all his students have plenty of time on their hands because there is no work in Bamiyan. But they are motivated to study by hopes that one day the economy will improve and perhaps Bamiyan University will reopen.
"I want to go to university, to go to college [to become a professional], but there is no college," Gharbani said. "Every one of us wants to be a professor, to be a doctor or an engineer and go to college. That's the wish of every one of our students."
The English teacher says that his informal classes have generated enormous interest among Bamiyan's youth in the weeks since the "Peace School" began. He and the other teachers plan to increase enrollment soon to 200 students. Gharbani also hopes that as the school grows, some foreign non-governmental organization may offer to pay the teachers' salaries and repair the university building in which they now hold classes.
But for now, the future of the informal school, like that of Bamiyan University, is highly uncertain. International aid organizations working in the region are concentrating on simply getting enough food distributed to enable the most vulnerable members of the population to survive the harsh winter. The UN's World Food Program has sent a total of 30,000 tons of cereals into the Hazara-populated central highlands, known as the Hazarajat, where the past years of warfare have uprooted the population and destroyed its farm-based economy.
With international organizations concentrating on the humanitarian crisis, the best hope for reopening Bamiyan University may lie with the same people who created it. The head of the Hezb-i-Wahdat party established the university because many Hazaras complained they were discriminated against when applying to universities in large Afghan cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. But party officials in Bamiyan City say that they have no immediate plans to resurrect the university, due to lack of funds.
Hazaras, however, do hold several ministerial posts in Afghanistan's new interim administration, and they say they are now determined -- after their long battle against the Taliban -- to demand a larger share of the central government's attention. That could mean that one day, a new Afghan government may fund higher education in the Hazarajat as part of the national school system -- something that has been unimaginable until now.
(The third part of the Hazara series will be issued on 2 January.)