Teachers in Afghanistan risk intimidation, arson and murder despite the Taliban's fall from power. Karen Baldwin reports
THE TALIBAN "night letters" delivered to headteachers make very clear their message: "We have told you many times to close down your schoo* I So wherever you are, your death is near."
Intimidation of teachers is worst in the troubled south and east of Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan, where British, Afghan and other international troops are struggling to suppress a determined insurgency.
In Ghazni, in the south east, the scene of fierce recent fighting, 46-year-old teacher Mohammed Halim was part-disembowelled then torn apart, with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, because he taught girls.
In September, Safia Ama Jan, who ran an underground school at her Kandahar home under the Taliban (1996-2001), was gunned down outside her home by two men riding past on motorbikes.
Under the Taliban, girls were banned from attending school. After the regime fell, she opened schools for hundreds of girls and became the director of women's affairs for Kandahar province.
A Taliban rule book, handed out to the hardline group's new recruits, recommends beating or killing Afghan teachers who refuse to leave their classrooms, and the burning down of their schools. A list of 30 rules includes three that single out Afghanistan's education system for attack.
For Afghan teachers, who earn around pound;32 a month, it has become a hazardous profession.
The Taliban death threat, written in Afghanistan's southern language Pashto and sent to the headteacher of one of the three girls' schools in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, where UK troops are based, reads:
"To the principal of the girl's school.
"If you will live in any part of Afghanistan, we will not leave you. By Allah, I will not leave you. We have told you many times to close down your school, but still teachers, girls and foreigners are coming to your school.
We can kill you because it is permitted in our seven religious books. So, wherever you are, your death is near.
"With respect, "Mullah Abdul Bari."
Since the fall of the Taliban, pupil numbers have risen dramatically, from around 1 million in 2002 to around 5 million at Unicef's last count. More than 500 British schools helped raise pound;250,000 in a campaign run by The TES and Unicef to provide new buildings and equipment.
Despite this improvement, more primary-age children are out of school than in. For many in rural areas, there is no school to go to, says Human Rights Watch, either because there is no building no teachers, or because the school has closed after intimidation. Afghan Ministry of Education figures show that this summer, when the insurgency intensified, 208 schools in the south and east closed down and 144 were destroyed by arson.
But where schools are open, demand for places is high. In the mountainous central province Ghor, town elders in isolated Kasi, population 5,000, have agreed that girls' education should be extended until they are 14. Mahmoud Khan, the girls' primary teacher, says this change of heart springs from a popular local belief: "If we had more educated people, Afghanistan would have fewer problems."
A farmer with only six years schooling, Mr Khan recently attended a three-week training course on child-centred learning, which has transformed his teaching style, he believes. "Now the children learn from each other as well as me and they learn better."
Mr Khan's salary is part-paid by the UK, which gives pound;102 million per year in aid to Afghanistan, a portion of which is channelled to the country's Ministry of Education to help meet the wage bill for its 100,000-plus teachers.
Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, said: "I pay tribute to the bravery and determination of Afghanistan's teachers, some of whom are working in fear of their lives because of intimidation from the Taliban.
"The UK will continue to support teachers, both through our aid and our armed forces, who are helping the Afghan government to improve security."
It is forbidden to work as a teacher for what the Taliban regards as a puppet regime.
Anyone who does so must receive a warning.
If the teacher refuses to give up the job, they must be beaten.
If the teacher still continues to instruct contrary to the principles of Islam, the district commander or a group leader must kill them.
If a school fails to heed a warning to close, it must be burnt down (but all religious books must be secured first).
Mahmoud Khan (right), a farmer who now teaches primary-age girls in Kasi.
Photograph: Nick Danziger