March 24 2002
KABUL, Afghanistan -- After years of being turned away at the schoolhouse gates, girls marched proudly at the head of the class Saturday at a ceremony here marking the start of school and the resumption of education for girls as well as boys in this country freeing itself from the Taliban's grim grip.
"A great day for Afghanistan," declared interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai after being showered with golden confetti by a choir of gaily dressed female pupils. "Probably today was the happiest day for me personally here--to see our children go to school and to see them happy."
Earlier, Karzai choked back tears when he spoke of his joy at seeing the children going to school again in peace after 23 years of war in Afghanistan. "Today we cry out of happiness," he said, collecting himself.
It was a race to the finish, but classes opened at 3,000 elementary schools across Afghanistan for an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million students. Karzai, UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy and the Aga Khan, a Muslim leader and philanthropist, all proclaimed it a historic day that augured well for the future of this war-ravaged land.
But it was the little fresh-faced children, particularly the girls--some in scout uniforms, some in track suits, some in traditional folk dress with bright red scarves and golden bangles, and some in black tunics and white scarves--who stole the show.
They radiated joy and pride as they sang and recited, and left the ceremony at the Amani High School, not far from the presidential palace, clutching pouches of U.N.-provided pens and copybooks.
Their crystal voices rang out, in Dari and Pashto, as they sang newly written songs extolling knowledge and celebrating the departure of the Taliban regime.
Many boys as well as girls did not attend school in the Taliban years, when civil war and poverty combined to erode the quality and availability of education across the country. By some estimates, Afghanistan has only a 13% literacy rate.
Bellamy pointed out that some courageous teachers continued educating girls in their homes, and she paid tribute to them as "heroes."
She said the U.N. agency for children had given out 7,700 tons of school supplies, including 500 classroom tents for places where school buildings have been destroyed. The United States contributed by printing 4 million textbooks.
Among the supplies distributed by UNICEF were hundreds of what the agency calls a "school in a box"--a metal chest containing all the supplies that a teacher would need for 80 elementary-level pupils, down to blunt-end scissors and a plastic clock to teach time.
Officials acknowledged that many schools remain in abysmal condition, lacking desks and chairs.
"We have a lot of work to do in that area," Karzai said. "But education will not wait for that--education will go on."
He said he was determined to make education the largest item in the country's budget and to ensure that teachers are well paid.
At Sharino High School in western Kabul, Spanish peacekeeping troops were still painting the school as pupils in their finest clothing entered through the iron gates for their first official day.
"We will try to be the leaders of our country, to rehabilitate it," promised Parwin Rasouli, the school's female principal.
Some girls had been taking special catch-up classes over the last few months to try to make up for the six years since the Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan. The regime barred girls from attending classes and punished people found teaching girls.
At the Sharino school, which now has coeducational classes up to the sixth grade and holds all-girls classes for grades 7 to 12, one of the students read a poem she had composed denouncing the regime.
"You are blind, and you are crippled," her verse taunted. "But now I am in school."