Pencils in the dust

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Three years after the Taliban was toppled Brendan O'Malley returns to a country still devastated by war. Some Afghan children are taught on roadsides, but others are learning in new schools made possible by the generosity of international donors - including British school children

The bunkroom is dark and smells of unwashed clothes. The pervasive dried-earth dust, scoured from the mountains by the Kabul winds, hangs in the atmosphere, even with the windows closed.

When they are not in class or playing football on a dirt pitch outside, the boys in this orphanage crouch on the floor between the metal bed legs, straining to read their exercise books in the shadows or playing chess.

Word has spread of a visitor today and a small crowd from nearby rooms has gathered in the doorway. All sad eyes and pleading brows, one by one they tell a similar story.

"I don't want to be here," says Nassem, 12, from Bazakhstan, who has two brothers in another orphanage in the city. "It gets me down."

He arrived five years ago when his mother could no longer afford to keep him. His father has not been seen since the Taliban took him away. "I miss my family," says Farhat, 13, from Jabal Sarage, whose father died of a heart illness four years ago. His jobless mother, who lives with his aunt, has no income. "When are you going to take me home?" he asks.

Farhat has mistaken me for a social worker, because the orphanage has embarked on the difficult process of trying to persuade 200 families to take back their children and these boys want to be among them. It is three years since the US-led coalition defeated the Taliban, but two decades of fighting tore the country apart, breaking families, ruining livelihoods and destroying school buildings. It sent millions on epic journeys into neighbouring countries and beyond in search of safety and a means to survive.

With no hope of an income, thousands of families sent their children to orphanages - 8,000 live in bunkrooms like this - so they could get a chance of an education. Here the children are taught to grade 8, then attend a local school, returning to their bunks each night, until they are 18. Many of them have one or both parents still alive. It is poverty that separates them from their families, not death.

"War is the cause," says Fawzia, a social worker who helps families find a source of income. "Extended families used to support orphans. But when people have lost their job and their house is destroyed, they can't afford to feed their own children. Even if they have shelter, there may be no money left after paying the rent."

Often the tipping point is the cost of paper and pencils. "They cannot pay for stationery, textbooks, or clothes, so they send their children here," says Nazifa, a mentor for the social workers.

Under a Unicef-funded pilot scheme, parents are being offered rations for up to six months, skills training and up to $250 (pound;137) of support to start petty trading, so they can afford to take their children home. "If a father wants to run a shop, we give him a shop and equipment to sell," says Muktar Ahmed, who runs the project. "If a mother can tailor, we'll buy her a sewing machine and cloth."

In a city where bombs and rocket attacks are still a daily occurrence - a rocket hit ministry buildings two blocks from Unicef's office while I was there and a suicide bomb in an internet cafe killed three people - many people remain fearful of the future. What if peace doesn't hold? And in the current climate many parents remain uncertain about schemes like this - social workers visited one family 21 times before they agreed to take part.

But it has had some success. So far 155 children have returned to the care of their family home. It is one of several ways that Unicef is trying to pick up the pieces where the school system, bursting with the strain of dealing with the world's greatest educational challenge, is struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged children.

To understand the scale of the problem, you only need to scan the mountains surrounding Kabul. Their jagged ridges may sparkle with snow, but the lower slopes are piled high with the flat-roofed mud houses of the dispossessed, millions of refugees who have returned by the truckload from Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan and have no land of their own. The city's population has quadrupled in three years to four million.

A country that has the largest proportion of seven to 12-year-olds and the least resources to educate them is coping with an influx of an extra million returning refugee children in its schools each year.

The ministry of education is proud of issuing its first curriculum and 3.6 million new textbooks, its teacher training programme, rebuilding one in eight schools and renovating one in 16. But that is only the start of the work.

Certainly in Kabul there have been some remarkable changes since I visited three years ago, when British schoolchildren raised pound;225,000 to help get their Afghan counterparts back to school via the TES's Children Helping Children campaign. Soofi Islam school, situated in one of the most heavily shelled districts of the city, was operating in the ruins of its former classrooms, many of which were missing whole walls and ceilings, blown off during years of attrition. "My bicycle was my desk," recalls the principal, Fazel Ahmed, sitting at his new version decked with plastic flowers and the Afghan flag and flanked by new chairs still wrapped in plastic.

The 2,600-pupil school has been completely rebuilt with money from Japanese donors. Now its biggest problem is that Unicef has cut back on supplies of exercise books to concentrate on poorer schools, and teachers are struggling to pay their rent on a salary of $50, which last month was paid 16 days late. On the outskirts of the city, Kwaja Rawash school, whose mustard-coloured walls were shattered by rockets leaving teachers struggling to be heard over the class next door, now has doors, windows and solid walls. But more than half the school is still attending lessons in Unicef tents, and two classes are taken in the open sun. The teachers'

toilet is covered by a two-foot wide tent.

More typical is Salang valley, a steep climb into the curtain of mountains north of the capital, where the villages perched on either side of the road were flattened by the tanks of the retreating Russian army in 1989, to prevent surprise attacks by the Mujahideen. Now, new mud houses are stacked on top of each other in cliff-edge hamlets, filled with returning refugees.

"There are 19 schools in this valley," says Mohammad Nabi, planning director for the province. "But only three have buildings. Fifteen of them don't even have tents." The tall, stone-built school on the lowest bend of the river and the black and tan painted school nearby are the exceptions. A few bends higher up the road we glimpse four Unicef school tents wedged in between the fast-flowing water and six rusted tanks propped up against the steep bank. The pupils here are the lucky ones.

Higher still, on a desolate lay-by, is Ahangaran "school". Seven circles of children are sitting huddled on logs and large stones, some of them clutching faded Unicef school bags. This is where 400 pupils are taught in two shifts over the noise of heavy trucks grinding past. Only one class has the luxury of a few small trees to shelter from the midday sun or the chilling wind in late afternoon. Pointing up the forbidding slopes, which are splashed with sheets of snow, Mahmood, the headmaster, tells us that many of the children walk for over an hour to get here. It seems a miracle that they come at all. "If you were a father, would you send your child to our school?" he asks, not needing a reply.

Those at greatest risk of missing out are teenage girls, despite the overturning of the Taliban's ban on girls going to school. Nine provinces have fewer than 10 per cent of girls in school and two or three have virtually none. In conservative areas, there is still opposition to girls schooling, as shown by last week's arson attack on a school in Logar, south of Kabul.

Unicef is working with district officials to find a remedy by setting up a system of volunteer community schools. In one of a collection of stone houses crammed on top of each other like a giant's stairway on the mountainside, Parwin, 18, and Nasreem, 15, are teaching two dozen girls and a handful of boys. The "school" is a room donated by their father, Mohammad Sadiq, who returned here from Iran six months ago. The "teachers" have, respectively, 11 and 10 years of education in Iran. Here, with 15 days training in teaching methods, using group work and local materials, they teach Dari, maths, Islam and life skills.

Parwin says: "We encourage the girls to identify themselves, families, parents, health education. What is the civic life, social life, basic hygiene, how to talk, introduce oneself." Combined with a drive among religious leaders to encourage parents to send their girls to school, Unicef hopes to set up 10,000 such schools across the country.

The truth is that with 80 per cent of schools damaged or destroyed during the war, Afghanistan needs help from wherever it can find it, and in some cases that is coming directly via a twinning arrangement with schools in the UK. The links have been set up by Afghan Connection, a charity established by British doctor Sarah Fane, with the support of another aid organisation, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. So far nine schools are linked and Dr Fane hopes to double that number by next year.

On a parched hill track outside Kabul, girls in black robes and white headdresses are giggling with delight as the Swedes deliver boxes of science equipment, skipping ropes and volleyball nets to Shina girls'

school sent by Park View school, Basingstoke. "Our children write to each other, exchange information about life in London and Kabul and what studies they do there," says a teacher, Hangoma.

The links rely heavily on visits by Dr Fane, who takes question and answer sessions in each class about their partner school. "She has helped us replace window panes, put up mosquito netting and build classrooms here," says Hangoma.

Bagrami girls' school now has a science lab complete with plastic skeleton and a library, built with the help of its links with St Catherine's school, Bramley, Surrey. Parwin, Bagrami's headteacher, says: "The relationship between our girls and the students over there is very important. They will get to know about each other's culture, their educational problems and how they can use each other's experience to solve them."

Back at the orphanage the social workers take us into the backstreets of Kabul, up a lumpy alleyway between the high-walled compounds and through a rickety wooden door. Four flat-roofed mud dwellings line the sides of a square patch of rough earth cut open by a meandering channel of dirty water. Through a curtain we enter the main room where Hamad, 14, who returned two months ago from the orphanage, lives with his family. Lined neatly with roll-up bed mats, this is where Hamad, his two brothers and two sisters, his mother, his uncle, who has had one leg amputated, and four cousins sleep. The only other room, a large porch, contains pots and pans for cooking.

"I am very happy, very happy," says Hamad's mother Royajan, smiling like she has won the pools. Her husband died during the fighting in Kabul, leaving her penniless. Her brother-in-law had no job and no income to buy stock to trade. But now she has got her son back, and for the first time in as long as she can remember, they won't be relying on family and friends to give them food. For Hamad has finished school for the day and is away at the market with his uncle, helping him push a barrow and supplies of nuts and dried fruit for sale, furnished by Unicef. "Now we can earn 100 Afs (pound;1) a day," declares Royajan with an air of satisfaction.

For such small sums whole lives can be changed in Kabul.

To make a link with an Afghan school, contact sarahfane@afghan For more information: www.afghanconnection,org. As part of its Make the Link campaign, The TES has launched a series of awards for international school links. See the advertisement on page 16 or go to Tell us about your link by emailing Unicef's fundraising target for education in Afghanistan for 2005 is pound;14 million. To donate, call 08457 312 312 or visit

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