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Afghanistan: Rebuilding Schools Starts With Pencils And Paper

Pupils across the southern regions of Afghanistan start school this month, and UNICEF and the Afghan Ministry of Education are working to make sure students have enough pencils, paper, and other materials for learning. They've joined forces to ship tons of educational materials in the coming days from warehouses on the outskirts of Kabul. But pencils and paper are mere starting points, as the country tries to rebuild its education system following years of war and neglect.

Kabul, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, and the Afghan Ministry of Education have launched a joint project to supply basic educational materials to schools in the south of the country in time for the start of the school year this month.

UNICEF has acquired several warehouses on the eastern outskirts of the capital, Kabul, from which it will distribute kits made up of pencils, papers, chalk and other learning materials to schools in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and other regional centers. The materials have been donated from around the world.

Schools in the south of the country begin the academic year in September, while the school year in northern areas, including Kabul, runs from March until the end of the year.

UNICEF last week formally handed over the warehouses to the Ministry of Education, although United Nations staff will stay behind to train local workers to receive the materials, pack them into kits, and ship them to the schools.

The mood was festive at ceremonies held to mark the handover. UNICEF spokesman Edward Carwardine set the scene. "We're standing right in the middle of the Ministry of Education's new logistics center, which today has been handed over by UNICEF to the Ministry of Education. And essentially, this will become the nerve center for supplies and distribution to schools around Afghanistan," Carwardine said.

Education Minister Yunis Qanuni dropped by to survey the work and even to pack a few boxes of colored pencils from Turkey for shipment to Kandahar.

Speaking to RFE/RL after the ceremony, Qanuni had kind words for UNICEF and the project, but stressed that pencils and paper are just the first steps in fixing an education system ruined by 10 years of civil war and rule by the fundamentalist Taliban militia. "Our educational problems are much greater than the present assistance and aid [can solve], although I appreciate it as a good starting point. And I'm very much grateful to the UNICEF organization. I hope that further cooperation will be done in order to improve our educational status. Thanks," Qanuni said.

In many areas, students will be returning to schools for the first time in five years. Under the Taliban, basic education was not encouraged. For girls, it was strictly prohibited. Many girls as old as 11 and 12 are attending school for the first time in their lives.

UNICEF said that because education was not available for so many years, as many as half the pupils in some areas are starting classes in the first grade (usually for 6-year-olds), regardless of their ages.

Add to that the devastation of 10 years of war: Many school buildings are no longer standing. The Ministry of Education is strapped for finances and international donors have been lax in fulfilling their pledges.

UNICEF's Carwardine said the existing infrastructure is simply stretched beyond capacity. The number of pupils returning to schools -- swelled by refugees returning to Afghanistan -- is greater than anyone anticipated. "At the beginning of the year, when schools [in the north of the country] first went back in March 2002, we anticipated that about 1.7 million primary-school-age children would go back to school. The latest figures we are receiving would indicate that probably over 2 million pupils, maybe as high as 3 million children, are now back in classrooms around Afghanistan," Carwardine said.

Still, there is reason for optimism. One of the most successful efforts at rebuilding and reopening a school can be found at the heart of the devastation of the Afghan civil war: Kabul's western side.

Here, the Rabia Balkhi high school for girls was reopened in March with the help of the International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF. The school was destroyed in the early 1990s as rival mujahedin factions waged a bloody war in the district for control of the capital.

Today, the school's newly scrubbed cream-color facade and red roof stand out amid a lunar landscape of rocks and rubble as far as the eye can see.

Nasrin is 22 years old and in her last year of high school. She was prohibited from attending school under the Taliban and is now five years behind in her studies.

Nevertheless, she's thrilled to be back in school and eager to talk into the microphone. She wants to tell her story in English, not Dari, perhaps to show that she's not that far behind. "I'm very grateful that we came back to school and started our lessons after five years that we had to stay at home without having any knowledge and education. And it's the best for us that we are now in school and can continue with our lessons," Nasrin said.

She described the frustration of not being able to attend school during the Taliban years. "When we were at home, we [did not have much hope] for the future. We didn't think that we would [ever] have the freedom to study. So I didn't study anything. I was just at home," Nasrin said.

To be sure, even this school, which is a recipient of ISAF help and strong support from the international community, has a long way to go.

The school's 1,900 students are squeezed into no more than 20 or 30 tiny classrooms. Some teachers are forced to hold lessons outside the building along the school's walkways. In many classrooms, two lessons are being held at the same time.

Rona Qadiri is a teacher of literature in her early 30s. She told RFE/RL of her frustrations. "There is no library. We have talented students here in our school, even some who could be poets. They have to be given the opportunity to improve their talents. In some classrooms, we have to teach two classes at the same time. This is a problem. It's difficult for us to convey our ideas to the students. They cannot learn in this environment. Please take a look for yourself," Qadiri said. "In addition, we must have laboratories for teaching subjects like chemistry, physics, and biology. There is a proverb in Dari: 'Listening is not the same as seeing.' The students should also learn from experimental work. Now we don't have any of these types of facilities. And whatever we say to the poor students, they have to accept it," Qadiri added.

But for her, the pleasures of being back in the classroom outweigh the frustrations. She laughed when asked if she's happy to be back. It's obvious by the look on her face. "Yes, of course, I'm very happy to be back in school and that the school has reopened. Before, we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams that we would be teaching again. Now we are awake and seeing everything again," Qadiri said.

Afghans, in the absence of significant material help, will have to draw on this wellspring of enthusiasm in the months and years to come.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.