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Where the gunners cannot read

Philip Baty finds the Mujahideen are more successful than schools in attracting children. Daud is 16. He joined the Mujahideen when he was 13 and is now responsible for a machine-gun post on the front line in a province of Kabul. He was barely a year old when war broke out in Afghanistan. He is illiterate and has never been to school.

Fifteen years of continual war have shattered Afghanistan's social and educational infrastructure. The Mujahideen leaders, once united against the Russian invaders, now squabble for supremacy with a stockpile of money and weapons provided by the West.

Afghanistan has less than 29 per cent literacy. It is third from the bottom of the 174 countries on the United Nations' General Human Development Index. Secondary school enrolment is as low as 10 per cent.

Daud is not interested in talking about education, but he is happy to show me his rifle. His weapon is the Kalikov. He prefers it to the better-known Kalashnikov AK-47 because, he explains through gesticulation, its bullets fragment and scatter on impact. His commander, the "Engineer" Bariali, gives all his men a weapon, pocket money and a roof over their heads. There are few other ways of earning a living in Afghanistan.

Most of the country's schools have been damaged or destroyed. Kabul University has been used as a military base for two years. In April, the UN Children's Emergency Fund made an appeal for Pounds 1.45 million simply for education.

"Education provision should be a top priority," said Martin Barber, of the UN aid agency for Afghanistan, UNOCHA, "but it is not on a par with rehydration programmes, mine clearance, repatriation or food. It is not an immediate life-saving issue. Education is part of rehabilitation; rehabilitation normally assumes peace."

Afghanistan has no functioning government. President Rabanni's authority barely extends beyond the bounds of Kabul. To the east and south the authority of the rebel Prime Minister Heckmatyar is generally accepted, while to the west, Ismael Khan is in charge. Elsewhere, a hotchpotch of ever-changing alliances prevails.

"Without a government, Afghanistan has no policies and certainly no curriculum," said Martin Barber. "There is no dialogue between the Mujahideen leaders and the UN on education because there is no education policy."

The reluctance to invest money in education is not just because of the prevalence of more pressing concerns. The education policies of the first Soviet government, especially provision for the education of women, provoked some of its first clashes with the Islamic military leaders. With the Soviets expelled, it remains a highly contentious issue that most would be happy to avoid.

The UN has provided supplies where a functioning school is found. They are gradually beginning to reopen through individual local initiatives. Since the beginning of 1993, UNICEF has assisted in the rehabilitation of nearly 50 primary schools.

However, as Martin Barber pointed out: "The extent of what UN agencies can do to help is very limited while the fighting continues to disrupt the whole fabric of society. One can apply a few Band-Aids, but one cannot stop the pain."

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