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Tensions Ease At Kabul University, But Grievances Remain

Workers prepare lunch in the ancient kitchen of Kabul University. (photos by Grant Podelco)
Workers prepare lunch in the ancient kitchen of Kabul University. (photos by Grant Podelco)
KABUL -- Mohammad Wakil is a 27-year-old medical student at Kabul University. He shares a small cinder-block room in the campus dormitory with 15 other men. Eleven rickety beds with dirty mattresses and blankets are wedged into the room. The other students sleep on the floor -- some on filthy carpets, others on a small scrap of burlap spread over the cold concrete. Unwashed plates and cups lie scattered about the room. Flies buzz everywhere. There is no heat or electricity, only a few small candles.

Wakil described his dormitory room, which is typical for Kabul University. "There are 16 people living in this room. We have an old carpet. There are mattresses with their cotton stuffing coming out. The beds have been here since the time of [former Afghan President Burhanuddin] Rabbani. About $300,000 was spent on repairing the dorm, but still there is nothing," Wakil said.

The 16 roommates, who have traveled from a number of Afghan provinces to study in Kabul, are among 5,000 students living in the university's single dilapidated dormitory. They say they have been without electricity for up to three weeks and only have access to water for three to four hours a day. They bathe once a week by leaving the university and finding facilities elsewhere. Food is in short supply. The dormitory's communal toilet facilities are squalid.

Lunch for Kabul University students
Amanullah is a 24-year-old education student. He said that students have repeatedly talked to the Ministry of Higher Education about conditions in the dormitory but that nothing has improved. That is why, he said, students staged a protest on 11 November, marching toward the presidential palace in the city center to make their voices heard.

'Police Opened Fire'

He said he participated in the march and that it was peaceful until police intervened. "They [students] had to ask for their rights. They went to the minister [of higher education] several times, saying that he was not paying attention to the students and asking him to solve the students' problems. And that was why they staged a protest. And as they were going [on the march], the police and other security officers came and stopped them. The students wanted to see [President Hamid] Karzai, and as they were going toward the presidential palace, police opened fire on them. So [the students] had to react and throw stones," Amanullah said.

Amanullah said he saw the bodies of two students who had been shot and killed by police.

Karzai called the shootings "deplorable" and ordered an investigation into the actions of police.

University students attempted another demonstration yesterday to express anger at the deaths of their colleagues, but police broke up the protest with water cannons and by firing shots into the air. A standoff that followed between police and a group of students who were occupying a campus building ended peacefully.

Students staged a third protest this morning at the university, which also ended without incident. Tensions on campus appear to have eased today, although streets leading to the university are still blocked by police, and soldiers wielding Kalashnikovs are patrolling around the dormitory.

'Friendly Relations'

General Qudus Khan is in charge of security for the city's Third District, which includes Kabul University. Despite the heavy police presence, Qudus said life on campus is returning to normal today. "We have very good and friendly relations with the students, as you see. The students have condemned the acts of some saboteurs and the ones who wanted to disturb the public order and act against the people's interest. And the condition [now] is completely normal, and the students can continue with their lessons peacefully," Qudus said.

In an interview today with RFE/RL, Afghanistan's minister of higher education, Mohammad Sharif Fayez, said he is confident that this week's demonstrations were instigated by extremist groups who have infiltrated the campus. "I have to tell you that this was not really a student demonstration. This was the anniversary of the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. The demonstration which started from the Kabul University dormitory started with not more than 200 students. When the demonstration reached this area, near Dehmazang, the number of demonstrators reached about 1,000. So you can see that a large number of those who took part in the demonstration came from somewhere else," Fayez said.

He said these fundamentalist groups are opposed to the university's establishing academic links with institutions outside Afghanistan. He said the university should not be a place for politics or ideology and that the student actions will jeopardize international support for the university, thereby achieving the goal, he said, of the extremist groups.

Fayez said he was told by security officials that some of the student protesters on 11 November were armed and that a bomb had exploded during the protest. He criticized the students for demonstrating at night, for not asking permission to march, and for not first exhausting the option of negotiations with the authorities over their grievances.

Harsh Conditions

Fayez acknowledged that the students are living under harsh conditions, but he said life is difficult throughout the capital. In the Kart-i-Sei area of Kabul, he said: "We don't have electricity. I don't have electricity. For the last week, there has not been electricity. We have distributed several thousand blankets to the students. In fact, President Karzai's adviser was at the ministry [today], and I requested 4,000 blankets for the students. We can provide them with electricity. And today I asked the Transitional Administration to provide us with $10,000 to buy generators for the dormitory," Fayez said.

Fayez said that the two students killed were from the university's medical institute and that they died when police opened fire during the demonstration. He said arrangements are being made today to deliver the bodies to their families in Paktia and Takhar provinces.

Shah Mahmood is an internist at the medical institute who said he is acting as a representative to the government for the students' concerns. Standing outside the dormitory next to General Qudus and other heavily armed guards, he said the situation on campus is calm today. "Now the students want to resume their lessons and for everything to return to normal. There is not any other goal, such as a political one. Some students may have political objectives, but in general, the students want to resume their lessons," Mahmood said.

Later, a group of university students told RFE/RL that they do not trust Mahmood and don't believe he is speaking in their best interests.

Mirwais is a 23-year-old medical student who lives in the single room in the dormitory with Wakil, Amanullah, and the 13 other students. He said he believes there will be no more demonstrations because they reflect badly on the students.

At the same time, he said he has no confidence the problems of the students will be addressed. He said a government commission was set up earlier this year to investigate student demands after similar protests at Kabul's Polytechnic Institute, but that nothing ever came of it.

One student was killed in clashes with police during that demonstration.
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.