MEDRAWER, AFGHANISTAN — Atefa's dream might have ended on a bright winter morning 13 months ago.
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."
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.
As they began to loot and burn, one put a can of gasoline next to Mr. Mohammad's face. "If you make a noise or try to escape, I will burn you alive," Mohammad recalls him saying.
They stayed for as long as four or five hours, after which Mohammad was able to sneak away for help. The town quickly converged on the school to put out the flames. But the damage was enormous. Photos taken in the aftermath show windows broken, walls seared by the flames, and what were once books scattered across the floor in ankle-deep piles of indistinguishable ash.
This is what Narzia Wafa remembers of her school on that day. "Everything was black with cinders," says the 12-year-old student, a math problem of intersecting angles on the blackboard behind her. "But still I came, and I was not scared."
"If we stopped coming, the enemy would just be encouraged," she adds.
When the local elders in Medrawer met to discuss the future of the girls' school, they knew that one underpaid government security guard wasn't enough. Nor could the government of Laghman Province provide police support: The entire province has only 250 police officers and 199 schools.
The solution was clear. "This was our responsibility," says Sayed Omer, another elder. "Who should protect our school if the government is not able?"
So the elders worked out a plan. Each village would be responsible for guarding the school for 10 nights, with shifts starting after evening prayers at 9 p.m. and ending before sunrise at 4 a.m. At the end of 10 days, another village would take over.
According to the rotating schedule, the men of Damanewal's village have worked the 10-day shift four different times since last February. During the night, the dozen men work in shifts, with six resting inside while the others split up into two groups of three, walking around the school wall simultaneously in opposite directions.
These days, they've taken to doing it with a certain flair, bringing along sticks, axes, and old swords. But the intent is peaceful. "Even if we face some people, we'll first try to give them some logic," says the elder Mr. Omer, who exudes an urbane elegance with his sandy brown shawl and calm manner. "We will say, 'If you can convince us that this is a good thing, we will go and burn the school with you.'"
Such logic can have an effect, they say. It has already convinced one local Taliban commander, who has gone from denouncing the schools as tools of foreign oppression to protecting them. While he doesn't participate in school watches, he has pronounced that he would maim anyone who attacked a school in his district. He even sends his girls to school.
"He supports us [the government] in the schools but is against us on other things," says Asiruddin Hotak, Laghman's education administration director.
Mr. Hotak looks on the program with great pride. "This district was the first to protect its school," he says, suggesting that it started the trend. The Ministry of Education in Kabul is vaguer, saying the idea came from many places.
But officials there agree that engaging elders has led to a marked improvement in school security nationwide. Part of that has to do with winter, when all insurgent activity slows in Afghanistan. But "the primary reason for success is cooperation from the community," he says.
Here in Medrawer, it means that Atefa still has a school to attend.
Sitting in a spare classroom with rows of benches and desks for about 30 girls, she has an open reading textbook before her, bright with pictures. While other girls stand and answer questions at nervous attention, she sits almost casually, her pale eyes fixed and unblinking.
"I'm not scared, because I want to serve my country in the future," she says. "If [children] don't know anything, how will they be able to build this country?"