The gunmen who broke into Miyan Abdul Hakim school in Kandahar city knew what they were looking for.
After they had terrorised the caretaker for doing the work of foreigners, they collected floor mats and desks to light bonfires inside the classrooms. Then they gathered all the dog-eared exercise books and school textbooks that they could find and threw them into the flames.
After a year’s respite the Taleban has returned to attacking schools and intimidating teachers across much of the south and east of the country. Schoolbooks, regarded as a threat to the Taleban’s grip on the minds of young Afghans, are a particular target.
Since the beginning of the new school year on March 23 there have been 36 attacks. Empty buildings have been set on fire or had grenades thrown into them. Teachers have been kidnapped, and later released. In one grisly case a caretaker was mutilated by having his ears and nose cut off, a common punishment for those accused of collaborating with the Afghan Government.
The security situation is now so bad in Kandahar province that nearly half of all schools are closed some or all of the time. Girls’ classes have been particularly badly hit because women teachers are too afraid to venture into rural districts where the Taleban is strong, threatening one of the successes of post-2001 Afghanistan.
All of the 40 schools in Marouf, one insurgency-affected district of Kandahar province, are now shut. Teachers fear that the situation could get as bad as it did in 2006 when nearly 200 schools were attacked. They worry that a new generation of Afghans is growing up uneducated and vulnerable to extremism.
The Education Ministry is trying to persuade tribal elders to protect schools. When they extend their protection guerrillas usually leave schools alone, although threatening “night letters” purportedly signed by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taleban leader, have been pinned to school doors ordering teachers to leave.
Sam Manunganidze, Unicef’s representative, said: “Despite everything there is a real appetite for education. Pupils want to learn and parents want their children educated. But we are seeing more schools being attacked and the education system is in crisis. We are hoping to protect schools by getting more community involvement.”
Teachers and communities often reach their own arrangements with the Taleban. In Zabul province commanders have permitted teaching but have destroyed books from the religious curriculum that promote reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. In Helmand, one of the most violent provinces, about 40 per cent of schools are not functioning. Unicef said the rate would be much higher if it wasn’t for community protection.
Criminals are almost as big a problem as the Taleban, with thieves stealing from schools then setting buildings alight. Many teachers, whose pay was recently raised from ?15 to ?20 a month, are unable to make ends meet, or are scared of attack, and simply quit.
In the cities, schools are better protected but pupils face the danger of being blown up by suicide bombs on the way to and from classes and the threat of kidnapping for ransom by criminal gangs.
Classes in Kandahar city are still full of girls, most of whom walk to school wearing burkas that are tucked under their desks during lessons given by male teachers.
At the Shalid Abdul Ahad Karzai school, which teaches boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon, the principal, Dawood Shah, admitted that many parents are deeply worried.
He said: “The main problems are explosions, kidnappings and assassinations.” Two years ago 16 pupils died when a bomb exploded outside his school. Some pupils have been withdrawn recently because their parents fear they are being targeted for abduction by kidnappers.
A more everyday problem is intimidation of girls by men who approach them as they walk home. In deeply conservative Kandahar, girls’ education is still opposed by many men.
Sixteen-year-old Anita said: “It is difficult but we have to come to classes. It is our duty to be educated. Our families are happy that we come to school but they worry about our security.” Some of her classmates have stopped attending because of the threats though, she admitted.
4 to 5% of Afghan children had access to primary education under the Taleban, almost none of them girls
5.4 million children, about half, are enrolled in schools today
35% of the pupils are girls
28% of Afghans are literate
6% of schools have been closed over terrorism in the past 18 months
Sources: CIA, Afghan Ministry of Education, United Nations