Dubai:Sunday, March 24, 2002
Kabul |By Neena Gopal, Our Asia Editor | 24-03-2002

Karzai declares New school year open

The hopes and aspirations of over a million Afghan children were kindled yesterday when the Prime Minister of the interim administration of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, declared open the new school year - but despite the delivery of thousands of books and school materials, the vast majority of schools both in the capital and in the interior are crying out for more.

Schools like the well-known Habibia Girls' School in Kabul, built with U.S. aid, the Manoochara Girls' School and the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan School, right in the heart of Kabul, have no desks or chairs let alone books and pencils.

In some cases, as on the road to Logar and Paghman valleys, schools reportedly have no roofs. Surveys by Unicef show that at least 2,000 schools in the country have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed.

"We don't even know how much reconstruction is going to cost," Karzai admitted in response to a Gulf New question. "But it will probably cost billions."

Earlier, at a moving ceremony to inaugurate the new school year, Karzai said he had come to "ring the school bell" but was soon overcome with emotion, his eyes filling with tears before an audience that included hundreds of schoolgirls and dozens of female school teachers.

To sustained applause, he said he saluted the women who had secretly continued to educate girls under the repressive Taliban regime.

"Today is the real jashan, the real Eid," said Hafisa Rasunil from the Unicef national office for protection, one of the few women teachers who worked in the UN during the Taliban rule.

Karzai was accompanied by a battery of famous faces associated with Afghan reconstruction - UN secretary general's envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. President Bush's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy, and surprise guest Prince Karim Aga Khan, who was following up on his promise to provide $75 million for reconstruction. He later announced and additional grant of $2 million for the Loya Jirga mission.

Bellamy praised the interim administration for making education a priority while detailing the flood of education materials that had poured into Afghanistan in the last few months.

She said the supplies include textbooks, blackboards, pencils and notebooks, teaching aids and tents that could be used for classrooms. But when pressed, acknowledged that delivery still had to be made and that many schools lacked basic furniture.

Karzai's hand-picked Education Minister, Rasoul Amin, whose 'back to school' campaign was praised as a huge success yesterday, said the giant posters plastered on walls throughout the city had alerted some two million primary schoolgoing children to the learning opportunities that have opened up.

"Our children have lost precious years," he said. "We have a lot to catch up."

In 1999 there was an estimated primary school aged population of 4.4 million. But since then only an estimated 32 per cent of boys and eight per cent of girls participated in some for of primary education, Unicef surveys show. Attendance and dropout rates were worsened by Taliban restrictions on curriculum and girls' schooling.

Rasoul's major area of focus are Afghan girls who were denied access to learning by the extremist Taliban. In fact the task before the Karzai government is huge. Rasoul, while thanking Japan which funded 70 per cent of the 'back to school' programme, made a strong plea to the international community to continue to fund the educational system in the coming years.

Said Rasoul: "The interim administration has mobilised teachers, registered children, set out a curriculum and an entire education structure virtually from scratch, but our task is not complete."

Karzai, who read out two letters from American schoolgirls sending good wishes to their counterparts and gifts of biscuits and wheat seeds, knows that without continued international funding his pet project could easily run aground.

Waving the letters for the cameras, the news-bite savvy Karzai said: "People all over the world are aware of Afghanistan's problems," ensuring that this was one story that would get told - and bring the millions in where it is sorely needed.