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Afghan villagers stand guard to protect schools

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2007


Atefa's dream might have ended on a bright winter morning 13 months ago.

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The hazel-eyed 8-year-old still has a ways to go before she becomes a surgeon, which she confidently proclaims as her life's goal. Yet graduating from grade school is one important step – and on Feb. 10, 2006, that seemed almost impossible.

Overnight, the Medrawer Girls School was burned to a charred husk by terrorists determined to prevent local girls from reading textbooks and learning geometry. Smoke still curled above the surrounding eucalyptus grove as the students arrived for class – their hopes of an education, and the better life it promised, vanishing in the morning sunshine.

Even then, however, the village elders were beginning to formulate a decision that would change the lives of Atefa and – some would say – girls across Afghanistan. Later that day, they decided to take protection of the school into their own hands, cobbling together a corps of village volunteers that has stood watch over the now-rebuilt school every night since, sometimes armed only with spare farm tools and ancient swords passed down as family heirlooms.

There hasn't been an attack since.

Local authorities say that this was Afghanistan's first community-sponsored school-watch program. In the intervening year, the Afghan Department of Education has championed the idea nationwide in an effort to maintain what has been, in many respects, the government's most celebrated success: bringing education to Afghanistan – and especially to girls.

"Education has a special importance in Afghanistan, and that is what our enemies know," says Mohammad Patman, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education.

National education officials estimate that during the past 18 months, the Taliban has burned more than 180 Afghan schools. The threat of attacks, according to a 2006 UNICEF report, has prevented 100,000 children from attending school.

But the rate of attacks has fallen significantly in recent months – a success the government attributes to community watch groups. Plans are under way to expand them to schools in all 34 provinces.

"For 30 years, people said to the uneducated that [schools] are something from foreigners, so burn them," says Mr. Patman. Now, villages are coming to the government and asking it to establish girls' schools, he says. "The enthusiasm we see is incredible."

For a nation often conflicted about the trappings of modernity, the eagerness of rural villages like Medrawer to patrol their own schools is telling. It suggests that, after years of ambivalence or even hostility, Afghans have come to recognize the importance of education – and they are willing to defend it, even in the wee hours of the morning with ax in hand.

Terrorists "are coming here and misusing the illiteracy of my people," says Abdul Qader Damanewal, an elder from a nearby village who sometimes stands guard here. "As soon as we are educated, the enemy will not be able to use them."

Citizen guards for where police are thin

Who the enemy was on the night of Feb. 9, 2006, the elders of Medrawer still don't know. Not surprisingly, Mr. Damanewal blames the Taliban for seeking to destroy what they see as an imposition of foreign values.

Medrawer could have been just one more school burned into oblivion. Allah Mohammad says that certainly seemed to be the plan. As the lone government guard on duty that night, the thin young man draped in a long beige shawl recalls the events with manic clarity. He scurries among the eucalyptus to show where some two dozen marauders poured over the wall after nightfall, where he was standing when they shot between his feet in warning, where they bound him hand and foot.