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Word on the street is that school is coming back

AT Saqi camp on the outskirts of Mazar e Sharif, next to a group of flimsy tents made from plastic sheets, a group of women are standing barefoot in the heavy snow.

They draw blankets around them to fight off the freezing wind. But the conversation is not about the cold. These women are talking about sending their children back to school.

Hafiza, 60, is holding the hand of her granddaughter, Safia. "If we had education," she explains, "then we would not have the fighting that has damaged our country so much. I want Safia and all our children to learn."

This greying, slightly-built woman lives with her family in a 10-metre square hole dug into the ground, covered in thin sheeting. She will soon return to her home in the drought-stricken region to the north-east, and she is impatient to move, not for herself, but so that Safia can start learning again.

"Look," she says, holding up her gnarled hands. "When I get to our village I will build the school myself with these, so my granddaughter can get her education. I will stop at every place I pass through and tell the mothers to get their children back to the classrooms. Then, perhaps, we will enjoy peace in our country again."

Hafiza, unknowingly, has become a key advocate in the campaign to encourage all primary-age children back into schools by the time they reopen on Thursday. The campaign, led by the Afghan Interim Administration, has been entitled "Sabak" ("Let's learn"). More than 400,000 leaflets, 15,000 posters, 50,000 stickers and 700 banners funded by UNICEF are being used to spread the message. Networks of landmine-awareness workers, education officials, vaccination campaign staff, community leaders, imams (leaders of Muslim prayer) and aid workers have been mobilised to promote pupil registration among parents.

The aim is to sign up all primary-age boys and girls before the start of term. But the pressure is on to ensure everybody knows that schools are opening again and that the old obstacles of poverty and tradition can be overcome.

During Taliban rule only 3 per cent of primary-age girls were enrolled in classes. This week, all imams in Kabul are being encouraged to include messages about girls' education in Friday worship by Sayed Ahmad Mabarez, deputy minister for religious affairs. A quietly-spoken man, his views are far-removed from those of the fundamentalist Taliban. "Islam promotes the rights of girls. Nothing in the Koran says that girls should not be educated. The abuse of women's rights was connected to Islam only by those with their personal agendas," he said.

"The saying of the Prophet Himself is 'Heaven lies under the feet of mothers'. This is the message I want all Afghanis to understand."

His efforts could prove to be crucial to the education campaign, in a country where the word of the imam is so greatly respected.

Poverty is another obstacle, with many parents believing that schooling will be expensive. Mrs Soraya, a teacher of Dari in Miriam girls' school, Kabul, said there is a general misconception that parents will have to pay for books and uniforms - which the Interim Authority, supported by UNICEF, is committed to providing free - and parents who rely on their children to earn a petty income need convincing that educating their children is the best way to help the whole family climb out of poverty in the long run. At the moment many send their children out to scavenge for wood and metal or work as shoeshiners and cigarette-sellers.

"Most people in Afghanistan face economic difficulty," Mrs Soraya said. "If providing uniform and materials was left to families, most people could not afford this."

The Herat Theatre Company - a group of local actors now enjoying a new lease of life after years of banishment under the Taliban - is shooting a television commercial in the garden of the city library to address the issue. Under the trees, a poverty-stricken family explains to a neighbour that the children cannot go to school as there is no money for books and materials.

"But school is free, and everything is provided for your children," comes the response. "And with the education they gain, they will be able to find good jobs and earn money to support you. Education is for their future, and for yours as well."

There is no big-budget mass-media campaign. The drive builds on the simple, age-old tradition of people talking to one another - in the street, at home, in mosques. The new opportunities presented by the return of television and radio have added an extra element to the strategy, but ultimately its success lies in the efforts of ordinary people like Hafiza as she makes the journey home, showing her wizened hands to all she meets and telling them: "Build your schools too, and send your children, so we can have peace in our land again."

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