Afghan Girls Go Back to School

The news was broadcast on television and radio. Mullahs announced it in the mosques. Teachers even went door to door to spread the word personally.

School is back in session for the girls of Mazar-e-Sharif.

More than three years after the Taliban banned female education, schools for girls in this northern Afghan city reopened Saturday to an almost euphoric reception.

Dozens of girls, many of them formal students for the first time in their young lives, fidgeted on cracked wooden benches during an assembly in the shattered remains of the Fatima Balkhi school, which serves students of all ages.

There were no chairs, no desks, no notebooks, no pens. But the students must come every day — no excuses — math teacher Sahira Kholmi told the smiling girls.

"These schools are open now and there are few obstacles in our way. So we should learn," she said.

When the hard-line Taliban took control of the city in 1998, they banned education for women under their harsh interpretation of Islam and forced the closure of Fatima Balkhi.

Then, as if seeking to ensure the 80-year-old school would never reopen, they methodically gutted it.

Light sockets were ripped from ceilings and electrical outlets pulled from walls. Chairs, desks and blackboards were smashed and dumped in the stairwell. Doors were ripped off their hinges and at least half the panes in windows and doors were smashed. Even chunks of plaster were gouged with the ceilings.

But learning did not disappear from Mazar-e-Sharif. It simply went underground.

Kholmi, like most of Fatima Balkhi's teachers, began giving private lessons in her home. When the Taliban found out about such tutoring across the city, they outlawed that, too.

"I did not accept their order," Kholmi said. "If I closed my home to the students, they would not learn."

So she continued to teach. Her students told anyone who asked that they were visiting a relative, and she made sure they left her house one by one, so they did not attract attention.

Sunya Haslami, 16, said the clandestine lessons scared her, but she had to keep learning.

"Now there is no problem. Our education will be very good. Now we will study," she said.

As the girls sat in the near-freezing assembly room, blown by wind gusting through broken windows, two U.S. special forces soldiers walked in.

One kneeled, and through an interpreter, asked some of the girls their names and ages, if they knew their ABCs and how to count to 10.

The other took snapshots.

The soldiers, who declined to give their names, took notes about the school's desperate needs and handed out notepads.

"This is just a small token so they can get started in the school," one told the teachers before he left.

Saturday was more for students to register and celebrate their restored right to learn. Formal classes begin Sunday.

Everyone will be tested. Those who pass will skip the grades they missed. The others will receive remedial instruction.

Zarmina Karimi, the assistant principal, worries what the lost years in education will do to her students.

"These small girls who didn't learn anything, what kind of future will they have?" she asked.

But other teachers radiated optimism, despite the building's dilapidated condition and their total lack of supplies.

"This is a new beginning for us," Kholmi said.