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Afghanistan: One Week After Student Protests, Signs Of Improvement Seen At Kabul University

One week ago, student protests over poor living conditions at Kabul University left at least two demonstrators dead and many others injured. Today on campus, there are signs of improvement. The director of the university's overcrowded dormitory was sacked, blankets are being distributed, and electricity has been partially restored. Classes have also resumed, and last week's heavy security presence has disappeared. RFE/RL toured the facility today and spoke with students and the new dormitory director about changes on campus since the protests.

Kabul, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Boxes of Korean-made blankets were being unloaded today on the front steps of Kabul University's dormitory, one week after protests over poor living conditions left at least two students dead.

The blankets are one of a number of signs indicating that the concerns of students are being addressed and that campus life is beginning to return to normal. Students, however, say they have yet to see many substantive changes.

Hazrat Munir is the new general director of the university's overcrowded central dormitory. Munir, a former official in the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education, was hired three days ago to take charge of the dormitory after the previous director was sacked.

Munir says that "strong steps" are being taken to improve the living conditions of the students: "There have been some improvements in the last few days. For example, 4,000 blankets have been provided for the students. Some have already been distributed and others are going to be distributed maybe today or tomorrow, in order to solve the problems of the students. Likewise, some quilts, mattresses, and pillows have been given to them, and the distribution process is still in progress."

The students RFE/RL spoke with today throughout the dormitory all said they had yet to receive any of these items.

The university's efforts to help the students come one week after Kabul police fired into a crowd of students marching down a main road near the university. Police say the students were throwing stones and that some were armed. The students say they were simply heading to the presidential palace in the city center to express their anger over conditions in the dormitory.

The United Nations and the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch condemned the shootings, as did the Afghan Human Rights Commission. Human Rights Watch says at least three students were killed and that some students were beaten and threatened by police while in hospital.

Police also used water cannons and fired shots to break up a student protest the following day. Students interviewed today by RFE/RL said that some of their classmates are still missing and may have been killed or placed under arrest.

Dormitory director Munir acknowledges that the university's dormitory was originally built to house 800 students and that close to 2,700 students are living there today. Another 1,200 students live in dormitories at Kabul's Polytechnic Institute. Munir declined to comment on the student protests or the actions of police.

Munir said the university is now working with a number of nongovernmental organizations to update the dormitory's electrical system and modernize its kitchen facilities. Currently, food -- mostly potatoes, beans, and rice -- for the 2,700 students is prepared in giant kettles over wood fires in two dilapidated buildings behind the dormitory that resemble stables more than kitchens.

"Steps have been taken to solve the power problem which has existed, and there is no such problem now. Water problems have been solved to some extent. The students are satisfied. A Polish [nongovernmental] organization has signed a protocol with the Ministry of Higher Education to repair the steam house and provide modern equipment for the kitchen. Also, their delegations have visited the dorm. And I hope that repairs will start as soon as possible," said Munir.

Munir could not specifically name the nongovernmental organizations that are helping the university.

Student representatives, Munir said, are also working with the university administration to improve life in the dormitories, including having a say in the selection and distribution of food to the students. A delegation from the Ministry of Higher Education also reportedly visited the dormitory yesterday to monitor conditions.

Twenty-six-year-old Rashid and 24-year-old Faiz are both medical students at Kabul University who say they participated in last week's protests. They live with 17 other men in a single dorm room. Many of them sleep on the floor.

The two students acknowledged that electricity has been restored for periods at night, but that there are still many problems. Rashid said: "If we compare the past few days with now, there have been some changes. But the changes have only been in [the supply of] electricity. We have electricity during the night, but there is no electricity during the daytime, so we can't solve some of our problems, such as washing clothes and dishes. About the blankets, we haven't received any yet. I have no idea if other wings [of the dormitory] have received them. The students still have the old stuff that they brought from their homes. Still, there is no new stuff."

Rashid said students have, indeed, returned to class, but says they are doing so under duress. Rashid said he and his friends are still angry over living conditions, but that they must go to class or risk being expelled because of their absences.

Faiz said he has seen little effort made at improving the living conditions of the students so far. Faiz also rejected accusations made by Minister of Higher Education Mohammad Sharif Fayez to RFE/RL last week that the student protests were instigated by extremist groups that had infiltrated the campus. Deputy Interior Minister General Helal also told RFE/RL last week some of the students were shouting slogans in support of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "The principal cause of this [the protests] was because of the problems of the students, which had reached their peak, and at last we [students] had to stage a protest. Rumors that there was a group behind this protest or that some people are calling us Al-Qaeda are absolutely baseless," said Faiz.

The student demonstrations were the largest public protests seen in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban last November.

As truckloads of blankets were being unloaded today outside the dormitory, the heavily armed security forces that had been stationed around the building last week were nowhere to be seen.

In fact, soldiers from a Swedish contingent of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) toured the dormitory today with its new director. Swedish Captain Tobias Ekman said the soldiers were there to see if there was anything they could do to help the situation: "Our team is working with the district that the university is in, and we sort of try to identify problems that we can help with from ISAF's point of view. And the dormitory is, of course, one of those issues. And so we are here to do a survey and talk to the students and the ones who are in charge of the dormitory."

Ekman said the university authorities have been very cooperative with his team. He said he has been struck by the amount of destruction suffered by the university during the past two decades of fighting in the city.

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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.