Just after midnight on Jan. 8, four armed men jumped over the wall of the Kabael Primary School in Loyawala, just outside of Kandahar, and began to spread 40 liters of kerosene inside the classrooms that regularly host 1,350 students.
The caretakers, who were unarmed, could do nothing but watch, and shiver in the night. The masked men waited just long enough for the fires to engulf the primary school, and then they left, bringing yet another bit of terror to the lives of Afghan villagers here.
"For 30 years ,we have been burned by these flames, this fighting," says one of the caretakers, Mohammad Sadeq, himself a former resistance fighter against the Soviets. "But this is our country; these children are from our soil. If we don't help them learn, who will?"
Across southern Afghanistan, night raids like the one in Loyawala are eroding one of the few solid gains that Afghanistan has made since the fall of the Taliban: education. By threatening or killing teachers and principals, and burning down schools, insurgents have found a method for bringing the war home to ordinary Afghans, and to weaken their faith in a government that appears unable to protect them and their children. The repercussions are just now being felt.
"The reason they attack schools is that they are a soft target," says Engineer Abdul Quadar Noorzai, regional manager of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar. "They get a lot of attention when they burn a school. The news goes up to the sky. The sad thing is that we didn't have good schools before this happened. Now it is like putting salt in our wounds."
Kandahar is certainly not the only Afghan province where such tactics are being used. Monday night, six armed people tried to burn a girls school in Laghman Province, but the village awoke and the attackers fled. Three primary schools were burned in Helmand Province on Friday.
But with eight schools burned in the current school year, Kandahar is the center of antigovernment activity. Government officials blame the Taliban for the attacks, something that Taliban spokesmen deny. But no matter who the culprit is, the government is struggling to stop the burnings.
"All over the world, there is no protective police force for schools," says Gov. Asadullah Khalid, the new governor of Kandahar. "This is an easy target for them. We have taken some measures, but I can tell you we expect the people to feel responsible and to take further steps themselves" to protect their schools.
Hayatullah Rifiqi, the education chief for Kandahar Province, says that Kabul has been cooperative in adding police to districts where attacks have taken place. Currently, his main task is getting the far-flung district of Maruf to open up its 42 schools, which currently remain shut because of threats.
"Before and after Eid [an Islamic feast day in January], some schools were burned, some leaflets were distributed in schools, some principals were killed, guards and caretakers were killed, and people have been threatened," says Mr. Rifiqi. "But even now, in remote districts, teachers are teaching. They tell me 'The only thing that will take Afghanistan out of its troubles is education, and whatever price we pay, we have to do it.' "
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif denies that the Taliban are behind the attacks on schools.
"The Taliban are supporters of education and learning," says Dr. Hanif, speaking to the Monitor by mobile phone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. "The people who are doing this are enemies of Islam, and we condemn them. Burning schools is not allowed under Islam."
In the village of Loyawala, the burned school has gotten a fresh coat of paint, and new chairs and desks for the students. UNICEF has donated large tents for classrooms to replace the tents burned by the insurgents.
Some teachers in Loyawala say they doubt the Taliban were behind the attack. Instead, they blame the government of Pakistan for taking advantage of Afghanistan's weakness.
Noting that the arsonists didn't allow caretakers to take copies of the Koran out of the classrooms before burning them, Loyawala principal Abdul Nazir says, "I don't think this was the Taliban, they don't burn Koran. Actually you have a lot of Pakistanis arrested with explosives these days. This is what they do. It's not coming from anywhere else but from Pakistan."
Abdul Aziz, the headmaster, agrees. "Pakistan doesn't want Afghanistan's education to go higher," he says, arguing that Pakistan relies on Afghans as laborers and consumers. "They want us to remain poor, illiterate, and dependent."
In the Arghandab district, east of Kandahar city, six schools have been burnt and two of these remain shut down because of insecurity. But the district head of education, Maiwand Khan, says that he is working with tribal elders to reopen the schools, and to get villagers to take more responsibility.
"It's difficult even if the government helps us out," says Mr. Khan. "But unless we persuade the people in the village that they should send their children to school, and that teachers should go back to work, and the villagers need to protect the schools themselves, then no student and no teacher will dare to go there."
In a five-year blueprint released Wednesday, Afghanistan - working with foreign donors - pledged to:
• Reduce the number of people living on less than $1 per day by 3% each year.
• Shut down all armed militias by 2007.
• Provide electricity to 25% of rural homes and 65% of urban homes.
• Reduce infant and maternal mortality by 20% and 15% respectively by 2010.
Source: The Associated Press