Tears for a land of burning books;International News;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Two generations have missed out as a result of the 21-year conflict, says Richard Wayman.

AFGHANISTAN DAUOD has not been to school since June. Not because of the summer holiday but as a result of renewed fighting in Afghanistan.

He is seven years old and one of the estimated 80,000 refugees who fled the Taliban onslaught for the Panjshir Valley. Dauod hopes to find shelter in the region which is controlled by the forces of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbini under the command Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of the Panjshir".

Fleeing with his almost blind grandfather, they took just what could be carried - Dauod lost his parents in the mayhem of the Taliban attack on Charikar, his home town.

In a report published earlier this year by the United Nations Children's Fund, Afghanistan was cited as one of the worst places in the world for children.

Using criteria such as under-fives mortality, number of children in school and impact of armed conflict only Angola and Sierra Leone rated worse.

The country has been at war now for 21 years. First with invading Soviet forces and, since 1989, a civil conflict along ethnicreligious lines.

Among the refugees sheltering under trees in the valley I found Kasim, a teacher from Gulbahor.

"Afghanistan has fallen into a dark hole," he said. "Our country has such a rich culture from ancient times but our children know none of it - two generations who can hardly read or write because of war." Fighting back tears he explained how the Taliban had burned books from his school. "They are cruel and ignorant people - what sort of country will we be if all anyone knows is the Koran?"

Dauod cannot read or write but he can identify the armoured vehicles and rocket launchers which pass up the valley towards the frontlines. With a maturity belying his age he told of a short life in which formal education barely featured.

"Sometimes I went to school but our first teacher was killed." He said: "All the time there is fighting and so there is nobody to teach us. This time when the Taliban came and burned books in the school, we didn't have many."

His prime concern now is to find food for himself and his grandfather.

Authorities in the Panjshir region distribute bread and rice but there is little else.

"When I'm older I will go and fight against the Taliban. You don't need to read or write to do that," he said.

Quite how many children are missing out on education because of war in the country is uncertain. With four of Afghanistan's 28 provinces still embroiled in conflict a conservative estimate would be 80,000.

After the Taliban seized control of the capital Kabul in 1996, they imposed harsh laws drawing on Islamic and traditional Afghan beliefs. As a result, in the 90 per cent of territory under Taliban control education for girls is forbidden.

Eric de Mul, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan, said the situation for girls is slightly improving, writes Scott Neuman of Associated Press. Girls are still barred from attending traditional schools, but there is a growth of "what is called home-based education," de Mul said.

In the Panjshir Valley schools have been turned into makeshift hostels for refugees. Many others are still sleeping outside and the few international aid organisations operating here are frantically trying to provide shelter before the vicious winter sets in and closes off the mountain passes. The UN has warned of an impending humanitarian disaster unless food supplies are allowed into the region soon.

Despite the fighting, the UN last week completed the vaccination of 3.5 million children against polio - in a country with one of the highest mortality rates from disease. The World Food Programme is to provide meals as an incentive for 50,000 children to attend primary school in anti-Taliban territory in the north-east.

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