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'Taliban destroyed my education. I hate them so much'

A MASSIVE operation is underway in Afghanistan to get 1.5 million primary children back to school after years of war and neglect.

Convoys of trucks carrying pens, paper and textbooks are en route to hundreds of schools across the country in time to reopen in three weeks time.

UNICEF and USAID are leading a $52 million (pound;37m) Back To School programme. The $52m figure includes $10m for blackboards, washbasins and toilets. Less than 5 per cent of Kabul schools have toilets.

Jeaniene Wright, a co-ordinator for UNICEF in Kabul, said: "It's been a massive undertaking, a logistical nightmare, but we are confident that despite setbacks we will be able to deliver on time."

Boys-only limited education available under the Taliban ended when the US began to wage its war on terror after the September 11 a`ttacks on New York and Washington.

For hundreds of thousands of young girls it will be the first time they will have had access to education in the five years since the Taliban came to power.

Primary enrolment in 1999 - the last year for which figures are available - was 38 per cent for boys and 3 per cent for girls. Participation in education at higher levels is much lower. Yet demand is high.

Most of Afghanistan's schools resemble charred bomb shelters with no heat or water. Plastic sheets cover windows - if they are lucky.

Until a countrywide assessment is completed, the ministry of education does not know exactly how many students, teachers, or structurally-sound schools exist.

A $2m sum has been set aside to train 3,000 instructors for two weeks. Special teaching materials for instructors allow even minimally-qualified instructors to teach a class.

The first airlifts of Back To School kits - packs of pens, pencils, coloured pencils and pencil sharpeners - began to arrive from Peshawar, Pakistan, on February 20. Most Afghan children have never seen coloured pencils before.

UNICEF and USAID have only had about 10 weeks to get the operation off the ground. Hamida Ataie, a teacher at a subsidised school in Kabul, said:

"Tell UNICEF we need more pens."

Many children who have not had the opportunity to attend schools for several years can participate in accelerated-learning classes.

Student-teachers like Marena Nawabi, 22, still needs to finish their last year of high school. "I hate the Taliban so much, they destroyed my education," she said. I could have finished university by now."

In the Mazar region, the second largest after Kabul, UNICEF and Save the Children UK supported a campaign to get children back to to school. Local radio stations helped to deliver advertisements for the campaign.

There are 400 schools in the province of Kandahar , but only 45 are operational. Gordon Weiss, spokesman for UNICEF in Herat, said there are at least 600 tent schools waiting to be used once the schools officially reopen.

My Forbidden Face - Growing Up Under the Taliban: a young woman's story, Book of the Week, Friday magazine, 21

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