SUNDAY, MARCH 24, 2002

Afghan girls return to school after five years

AFP [ SATURDAY, MARCH 23, 2002 4:16:23 PM]

KABUL: Afghan girls went back to school for the first time in five years Saturday, elated and emotional at the end of the draconian ban on female education imposed by the now ousted Taliban regime.

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the UN's special envoy for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi led a ceremony to celebrate the start of the new school year at the capital's Amani High School.

Karzai declared it "the best day" of his administration's three months in power. "We have never had any better day than this one," he declared. "Today tears come from the eyes of our people, but these are tears of happiness, because our children, our daughters and sons, are going to school. These are tears of pride."

Education minister Sima Samar, one of several cabinet members accompanying Karzai, declared March 23 Education Day, and said in the future it would be a national holiday.

Zakia, 15, who would have been in the ninth grade if the Taliban had not prevented her from going to school, was delighted to be going to classes.

"I have to go back to my fifth class." Zakia told AFP. "But I am happy that even now I have got the chance." She said she would try to take in two grades in one year to compensate for her missed time.

Under the harsh Taliban rule, women were also banned from teaching. At the Amani school Saturday, female teacher Maimuna Ahmadi, 35, expressed her pride at being able to resume her profession.

"I feel very happy. I am proud to teach again. I am very proud we have been given the chance to educate," she told AFP. "In the past five years I found out that ignorance and illiteracy were the roots of all my country's problems. It resulted in all the unfortunate events."

Brahimi said the international community was paying great attention to the start of the new school year. "We cannot afford the failure of Afghan children." Brahimi said.

Some 500 officials and pupils attended the ceremony, including Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the Agha Khan and UNICEF chief executive Carol Bellamy.

The Taliban was routed from power in November by US-led bombing raids backed by anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces.