In this northern city, small groups of girls were seen treading the path to schools that had been closed by the Taliban when it took power here in 1998.
They found classrooms packed with fellow students, but no tables or chairs to study on. The pupils sat on the ground and on window-ledges instead, their books laid out on their knees. But the discomfort did little to suppress their joy at returning to school.
"We would be ignorant if we didn't study," said Waida, 12, her eyes fixed on the playground. "I would like to become a school teacher one day," she said before turning her attention to the first lesson of the day.
Outside, a group of slightly older students waited for the junior class to finish. With a lack of classrooms, each age group has been forced to use those available at staggered times.
"I would like to be a journalist or an author," said Shabnam Zaferi, 14.
During the years in which she was deprived of school, she studied in secret, algebra, embroidery and English, instead of the Koran at her family home. Saturday was also an historic day for teachers.
Women, banned from working under the Taliban, also returned to the school to resume their profession with relish. "We have been waiting for this day for a long time. For us, school is like the sun which has been hidden in clouds," said Rahima Hormul Qassimyar, referring to the dark years under the Taliban.
"For three and a half years we had no rights, so I just stayed at home and taught my three daughters."
In the capital Kabul, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the UN's special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, led a ceremony at Amani High School to celebrate the return of female pupils after five years.
The Taliban had imposed the ban when they took Kabul in 1996. School girls and boys, waving Afghanistan's black, red and green flag, filled the schoolyard to greet Karzai.
Karzai declared the start of the new school year was "the best day" of his interim administration's three months in power. "We have never had any better day than this one," he said.
"Today tears flow 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."
Rolling up for her first day at school, Sadaf, aged five, pronounced: "I am here to study." "I want to read books and become an engineer," she told AFP.
Through the proper education of its children, Afghanistan would cease to be a beggar nation, said Karzai. "I am confident that through training these children, the hand of begging which Afghanistan has extended to the world, will become the hand of help and assistance."
Higher Education minister Rasul Amin, one of several cabinet members accompanying Karzai, declared March 23 a future national holiday to be known as Education Day. "This day provides us with a new opportunity to start meeting the needs of future generations," Amin said. "Now is the time to invest in the future of the Afghan nation."
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."
Female teacher Maimuna Ahmadi, 35, said she was "proud to teach again." "In the past five years I found out that ignorance and illiteracy were the roots of all my country's problems."
Brahimi said the international community was paying great attention to the resumption of education in post-Taliban Afghanistan. "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.-AFP