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HERAT, Afghanistan – A group of young Afghan women in the deeply conservative western Herat province is breaking traditional barriers as their war-torn country's first female coders in an overwhelmingly male-dominated tech field.
The game they created at the Code to Inspire computer training center in the city of Herat, the provincial capital, underscores Afghanistan's struggle to eradicate vast opium poppy fields ruled by the Taliban.
For 20-year-old Khatera Mohammadi, one of the students at the center, it was more than just a game: "Fight against Opium" was based on her brother's real-life experience years ago as a translator for U.S. troops in Helmand province and the stories he told her.
"Each time he came back home, he would tell us about the poppy fields, the terrible mine blasts, battling opium traffickers and drugs," Mohammadi recounted to The Associated Press.
She and her colleagues at the center thought that if they create a game, it would raise awareness, especially among the young. It's not dropping bombs form planes or battling insurgent in the battlefields, but it's a way to combat drugs — through a computer game.
In the game, with five supporting lives, an Afghan soldier mimics a real-life mission in Helmand to clear out drugs. The soldier encounters various obstacles in the process: the enemy hiding in tall corn fields, land mines, drug traffickers and hidden heroin labs.
Afghanistan is the world's top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. The country produces more opium than all other countries combined, according to U.N. estimates. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are where most of the poppy fields are and where the majority of the production takes place while Herat lies along a key smuggling route to neighboring Iran and beyond.
The Taliban, who have been waging war against the Afghan government since 2001, are heavily involved in poppy growing, which has increased in recent years, all but halting government eradication efforts.
Mohammadi says she and her teammates completed the game in one month and her brother was the first person she showed it to. She declined to give her brother's name, fearing for his safety and the family's because he worked with American soldiers.
Her dream, she says, is that one day the opium poppy would be replaced by the saffron crocus — so she put that in the game, having the soldiers encourage local poppy farmers to cultivate saffron instead.
"Saffron is more expensive and it would be better for the country," she says.
The Herat girls-only computer programing school, Code to Inspire or CTI, was the brainchild of Fereshteh Forough, who was born an Afghan refugee in Iran and only returned to Herat after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. A former Herat university professor now living in the United States, she seeks to break gender barriers and empower girls to learn to code as a way to change their lives.
The school houses over 80 girls, both high school and university students. They learn to create their own websites, mobile applications, games and other web development projects.
"It's not easy for a girl to find a job and go to work outside of her home in Afghanistan," said Hasib Rassa, the CTI project manager. "Now, with just one laptop at home, she can work online and earn money and help her family."
"The plan is to go big, to have more schools across Afghanistan," he added.
As young Afghans increasingly use social media, 20-year-old Frahnaz Osmani, a student of graphic designer at the CTI, decided to develop Afghan female character stickers. Her stickers show a little girl in colorful traditional Afghan clothing, a red dress and a green headscarf, with the sticker messages in Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages.
"I wanted the world to see that Afghan girls can do something, and that we can have our own creations," she said.
For 18-year-old Samira Ansari, another student at the center, coding was an unfamiliar, strange word. Now, it's a pathway to her dream of becoming a web designer — which she hopes to study after a two-year course at the center.
"When I first heard about coding, I laughed and wondered what it means," she said.
"But when I found out that all these creative and skilled people designing websites had started from coding, I became very interested," she said, breaking into a smile.
Faiez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan.