Grateful to read in sub-zero conditions

12th December 1997 at 00:00
AFGHANISTAN. In the land of the Taleban a new university promises equality for women. David Loyn reports.

By the time the university term ended in Bamiyan last month, the ground was frozen, the temperature had fallen to minus 10 at night, and the first snows had dusted the peaks of the Hindu Kush.

Bamiyan was a centre of learning in the ancient world. And now the first university to be built here for a 1,000 years is beginning to take shape, against all the odds.

Up till now most of the classes have been held in the open air. As one of the lecturers, Faiza Fala, said: "You have to be committed if you want to succeed. "

The teaching staff and most of the 300 students are members of the Hazara tribe. They are also refugees.

They set up their unlikely university - the only new educational institution in Afghanistan with equality for women students - after fleeing the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when it was dragged into the civil war it had successfully avoided for almost two decades.

The Muslim fundamentalist army of the Taleban stormed north in the spring. For three days they held Mazar in coalition with a local warlord. They were thrown out of the city, but their conservative social programme has been imposed by Islamic mullahs, who have prevented mixed-sex teaching in Mazar's colleges.

And with sex discrimination has come ethnic exclusion. Life is hard now for the warlike Hazaras, whose distinctive Mongol features are said to mark them as the descendants of Genghis Khan's hordes.

Mohammed Kazimtura - a Hazara who once headed a successful medical school in Mazar - returned to Bamiyan, the ancient capital of the Hazaras, to open a university.

Hunched under blankets, Professor Kazimtura raised his voice to be heard over the hiss of a single hurricane lamp, as he spoke of educating the people without books, or laboratories, or even buildings.

He said it does not make any difference that most lectures are in the open. "Our lecturers are keen to teach, and students keen to learn." But their miserable lack of resources can only get worse.

Science can be taught using handwritten translations of English medical textbooks, but more advanced work, and practical experiments will have to wait. They also try to teach science, agriculture and literature.

This is the poorest region of Afghanistan. The regional capital has no power or running water, and the United Nations warns of a serious famine this winter because the Taliban have blockaded the road from the South.

Despite Bamiyan University's commitment to equality, it has had no international support. The world has protested against the Taliban for closing down women's education, but is not encouraging this alternative.

The wheels of UNESCO, the UN's educational organisation, are grinding slowly, but no cash has emerged, although Professor Kazimtura's demands are pathetically small.

At present his budget is 2.5 million Afghans a month - about Pounds 25 - and even if he were to put in a realistic demand it would only be small change for any international aid organisation.

For now, the money comes from the Hazara's ruling party, the Hezbi Wahadat. But most of the party's cash goes on the war effort.

A secondary school in the capital, which is covered with noble slogans about the need for education, is a billet for soldiers.

Meanwhile, out of the back windows of the classrooms you can see the sheer face of the Hindu Kush. Carved into it are the giant figures of two huge Buddhas, the tallest more than 170 feet high. Refugees are settling into caves which monks built alongside the Buddhas almost two centuries ago.

In the small house which the ruling party has given to the fledgling women's committee of Bamiyan, Dr Faiza Fala argues with a passion for education and the role of the makeshift university.

"The main reason for the fighting in Afghanistan is the lack of education, " she said. Women and men should be educated together so that the country can develop."

She added: "If you educate a man you educate a person; if you educate a woman you educate a family."

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