Classes in tents try to halt conflict

Violence still holds sway for many people displaced by the Afghan conflict, Brendan O'Malley reports

The school tents in the camps at Maslak are shredded at the edges, offering little protection against the dust whipping through them.

Set on high ground in the desert 10 miles west of Herat, western Afghanistan, they have to be taken down after classes to stop them being ripped to pieces by the annual 120-day winds.

"We don't have shelter and we don't have enough space," says Shamsulhaq, 33, a teacher who has had 12 years of schooling but only one month's teacher-training.

The tents have become a symbol of the precarious nature of aid in a country that has known little but war for two decades.

The camps house 100,000 refugees who fled the fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, believes education is the best way to help them to rebuild their lives.

But the aid agency cannot build more permanent, mudbrick schools because the Afghan government does not want to encourage dependency that might dissuade displaced people from going home.

Classes are held six days a week in 17 tent schools. Maths and literacy in the local language, Dari, are being taught in shifts to 40-50 pupils of six and over per tent, for two hours a day.

Each tent is supplied with a blackboard and metal "school in a box", containing two footballs, a learning clock, chalk, slates, skittle and ball kit, bag of bibs, crayons, paint and brush, set squares, a big ruler, duster, and workbooks.

"What we are giving them is non-formal education, to help them get ready for formal schools when they return to their region," said Mirvais Fahez, of UNICEF's Back to School programme.

The three camps that stretch for a couple of miles along the road to Iran look as though they have been bombed, because many of the hundreds of rows of mudbrick houses have been flattened.

In fact, they have been pulled down on the orders of the authorities by 200,000 or so refugees who have already left, to prevent new families moving in.

Many are afraid of going home, in case they find their home in ruins or because a different ethnic group has taken control of their village.

Some Pashtun elders said they were kicked out of their homes by the Taliban but cannot go back as Tajiks have taken over. "Tajiks and Pashtuns are enemies," they said.

Others will not go because they still owe money to neighbours in their village for seeds borrowed during the drought and have no means of repaying the debt.

In Afghanistan, such disputes can lead to violence because there is a history - especially under the Taliban - of problems being solved by brute force. Western visitors were warned in Herat not to sit on house balconies in case the neighbours mistakenly thought they were looking at their women, an offence which could easily lead to gunshots.

UNICEF believes the camps will not close for some time and a flexible system of education has to prepare adults and children alike for reconciliation. This month it has widened its remit in Maslak from providing primary schools in tents to creating family learning spaces. These are areas cleared of mines in which adults will be able to learn about peace, health and income generation. Counselling is given on conflict resolution.

"These are people who have run out of seed and livestock, who often don't have any tools left. We need to help them to learn how to resolve conflicts, wars with each other - and learn some skills they can bring back with them when they return home, to improve their lives," said Mr Fahez.

The camps offer little respite from the harsh weather or the extreme poverty that has resulted from relentless conflict. Under the Taliban, aid rations went to feed fighters on the frontline. Now the biggest scourge of the camps is TB.

But another danger is boredom. When families are pent up in mud houses with little prospect of work, frustration can boil over into fights. The peace education programme, developed by the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF and Save the Children, helps people avoid conflict by teaching them life skills such as how to communicate and work with other people.

"It works well for older boys and girls," said Milen Kidane, a UNICEF child protection officer. "They weren't so excited about going to school, even though they couldn't read or write and have never been there."

A theatre and writing association is being set up and UNICEF plans radio sessions, in which young people discuss issues on air.

For the younger children, who have no toys, the UNICEF balls, bibs and skittles provoke squeals of delight. For adults, there are complex inter-ethnic problems to solve. But Mr Fahez believes that if the new government under Hamid Karzai manages to call in the guns, education can give peace a chance.

Friday, 12

* HELP get children back to school in Afghanistan. Visit for fundraising ideas and tell us how your school is helping by emailing To make a credit card donation, please telephone 08457 312312.

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