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    Afghanistan: Education Under Fire

    Two weeks ago in Pul-i-Khumri, Afghanistan, 59 children and five of their teachers were murdered. They died while they stood in an outdoor ceremony to greet local dignitaries. A truck full of explosives was driven directly into their gathering by a man sufficiently crazed by his fear of the progress. Sadly, these deaths do not stand alone. School children have become targets of a new war, and schools have become the new battlefields. In Afghanistan, education is under attack.

    The atrocities are staggering. Schools have been rocketed, grenaded and seeded with land mines. Teachers have been beheaded. Children have been abducted and killed. Countrywide, hundreds of ‘night letters’ — death threats — have been posted on school walls to terrify teachers and children in the morning.

    These threats are not empty. In 2006, there were 204 attacks on schools, teachers and students, according to Human Rights Watch International. Amnesty International reports that 75 children and teachers died in these attacks. Uncounted and inestimable are the profound injuries, physical, emotional, spiritual and familial that these attacks have wrought.

    While Afghanistan struggles to rebuild and heal from nearly thirty years of war, few efforts can be as profoundly effective in rebuilding a nation as educating the youngest citizens. Despite often witnessing the worst atrocities of war, children are powerfully resilient when returned to a life of quotidian order, stability and care. Education, more than any other treatment, is best able to provide this. Education alone has the power to mine the gems of human potential.

    In 2002, the world cheered as International Coalition Forces brought the harsh rule of the Taliban to an end. Almost overnight, schools sprouted up across the country. In turn, the world community’s attention brought huge waves of money, infrastructure and teacher’s training. Girls, who were the more abused by educational neglect, summoned their bravery and took, in many cases, their first steps to school. The ground swell of such courage brought more bounty as thousands of Afghan teachers were trained and certified. School construction also began in earnest. In the first year of post-Taliban life, the attendance rate of children increased nearly seventy percent.

    Today, education is in the cross-hairs. Thousands of young Afghan students are in peril. More bleak, indeed, are the lives of countless children who are crippled by their own family’s prohibition of learning. President Karzai’s address on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2006, summons this problem, ‘From threats of the enemies of Afghanistan, today as we speak, some 100,000 Afghan children who went to school last year, and the year before last, do not go to school.’ Since his address, attacks have only further intensified and schools are now closing at an even greater rate. At present, in the Helmand province, the epicenter of the insurgency, 114 schools have locked their doors. Only three of the 24 local districts have any schools at all.

    Education is targeted for four main reasons. First, terrorists readily seek exploitable targets whose attack will strike the public with fear; schools and their innocents are the softest of targets. Schools are the most recognizable evidences of the new government and are regarded as an evidence of western domination. Because women who are educated are much less easy to inhibit and repress, education is additionally targeted as it threatens to supplant the stone-age ideology of the Taliban.

    The solutions are not simple. Paradoxically, the threat against education will only end once an entire generation of Afghan’s have been successfully educated. In the meantime, the world’s ever shifting gaze must be returned to Afghanistan.

    As Afghanistan’s fate remains at the cross-roads, we must redouble our efforts. We must shore-up our commitments to assist Afghans as they strive to achieve peace and prosperity which will ripple out to a troubled region. To do this, we must help a new generation blossom in the ruble of war.

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