KABUL, Afghanistan – She's excited and, like new students everywhere, a little nervous. Sixteen-year-old Aroosa is back in school for the first time in five years, picking up where she left off when the Taliban rolled into Kabul five years ago.
The lanky sixth grader doesn't mind that most of her classmates are younger than her, some only 11. She's just happy to be out of the shadows again, having spent the last five years mostly at home because, as well as banning education for girls after the age of eight, the Taliban restricted their movement.
"I lost my education. I lost my childhood," she said.
The Taliban, whose name means "students," began as religious vigilantes committed to ridding this war-wrecked land of banditry and lawlessness. After taking power, they imposed a strict form of Islam. Among their rules, Afghans were forbidden to listen to music, watch television, admire artwork. Men had to wear beards, while women were banned from most work and from going to school.
Aroosa arrived for her first day back at school Sunday wearing her pride and joy -- a pair of used jeans she pain stakingly adorned with tiny silver beads on the hem and a delicately embroidered design.
As her friends crowded around her, pushing and giggling, she explained how she celebrated the end of the Islamic regime. "I went out and bought these jeans," she said.
The all-girls school opened last week with about 800 students, said school director Fatima Rizai.
Hidden behind a row of houses, the school is perched on a slight incline. There was no protection against the chilly winter morning. But the students didn't seem to mind as they packed 25 and 30 to a room. The small ones raced across the rocky school grounds to their classrooms.
In the small dimly lit classrooms, eager students crouched on the floor, balancing notebooks on their knees. Two friends shared one of the few chairs.
On a small, cracked blackboard, the teacher wrote the English alphabet and her students, all girls over 12, repeated each letter. Light streamed through a small opening high in the wall. Cold penetrated the bare cement floor.
Deba, 8, played with her brown crocheted scarf and pondered for a few minutes before deciding what she wanted to be when she finishes school.
"I think I will be an engineer," she said -- an unusual preference for girls in Afghanistan who almost invariably pick doctor or teacher.
Deba explained that she would be following in her uncle's footsteps: "I think if I am an engineer I can make new buildings and make my country new again."
Another girl, Shabna, was 10 when the Taliban took over Kabul.
"I remember my teacher told me: 'Maybe tomorrow it will be your last day at school.' I was sad because every other country was going ahead and my country was going backward," she said.
Devastated by 23 years of war, Afghanistan has lost nearly two generations to relentless violence. Today, teen-age boys swagger down the streets of Kabul, carelessly holding assault rifles or rocket launchers.
When asked about their education, few say they have been in school in more than four years. The boys are proud of what little schooling they've had, but only rarely do any of them express a desire to return.
While girls under the age of eight could attend school, the Taliban said the Quran, the Muslim holy book, was the only book they needed to learn.
Still, some older girls continued to receive schooling in secret home schools.
Shaima Pavez, trained as an electrical engineer, taught 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 12.
"I told the girls to put your books and notebooks under your burqa and if the Taliban stop you and ask you anything, don't tell them anything. Just tell them you are going to study the Quran," she recalled.