PORIAT, Afghanistan – For 14-year-old Mohammed Salam, his tent school was about all this mud-brick farming village had going for it. That was until suspected Taliban terrorists burned it to the ground.
"Now we are taught underneath trees," the teenager said as he and other students took exams in a cluster of trees near the place their school stood before it was destroyed more than a month ago.
"They (the Taliban) want us illiterate so we have nothing else to do but pick up a gun," Mohammed said Monday.
The school in Poriat, a village 60 miles northeast of the capital, is like hundreds that a new Human Rights Watch report says have been attacked or forced to close in Afghanistan. The terrorist campaign targets state schools, particularly those for girls.
The report documents 204 attacks on schools, teachers and students since January 2005. Remnants of the toppled Taliban regime, other Islamic extremist groups and Afghan warlords are believed to be behind the campaign.
Zuhoor Afghan, the top adviser to Afghanistan's education minister, painted an even bleaker picture. He said terrorists had set fire to about 120 schools in the last four months and forced 200 more to close by threatening teachers and students. As a result, he said, more than 200,000 children were going without an education.
"Once they destroy a child's chance for education, there is nothing else for the young generation to do and it becomes very easy to encourage them to join their forces," the education minister said.
Motives abound for why terrorists would target schools. Insurgents claim educating girls is against Islam. They oppose government-funded schools for boys because they teach subjects besides religion. Targeting schools is also a tactic to shake the authority of the U.S.-backed government.
The spike in attacks on Afghan schools comes amid the most intense period in terrorist violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled for harboring Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Afghan said 40 students and teachers have been killed this year. An April 11 rocket attack on the Salabagh School in Asadabad, eastern Afghanistan, killed six pupils and wounded 14. Terrorists also beheaded a headmaster in the southern town of Qalat in January after he had refused to meet with their commander.
Sam Zarifi, a co-author of the Human Rights Watch report, said violence against Afghan schools dates to the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, when then Islamic fighters targeted schools as part of a similar ploy to spread instability aimed at ending the Russian presence.
"Attacks on schools, especially for girls, is a tried and proven insurgent tactic, but the pace and ferocity of the recent attacks has been unprecedented," Zarifi told The Associated Press.
Zarifi and education officials interviewed by the AP said most attacks are taking place in southern Afghanistan outside the relative peace of the capital Kabul, and are blamed on the Taliban. But other radical Islamic groups are believed to be behind many of the attacks and threats throughout eastern Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda-linked terrorists are active.
"Our teachers and our students are being threatened with letters from the Taliban left at their schools, homes and mosques warning them not to go to school or they will be attacked," said Nabi Khushan, director of education in southern Zabul province.
The top United Nations official in Kabul, Tom Koenigs, deplored the school attacks and called on the government, local leaders and the international community to address the situation.
"One of the threats of the Taliban is to return to illiteracy and a lack of schools, particularly for girls," Koenigs told reporters at a news conference.
Koenigs recommended that every school burned must be replaced by either the international community or the government "as fast as possible."
In Poriat, Mohammed Salam and his friends study in the shade for as long as possible before the searing summer sun makes it impossible to work.
"It is very important that we get our school back, even if it is just another tent, as soon as possible," he said. "We need good teachers, good security and good lessons. I want to do something for my country in the future."