'A great day for Afghanistan' as millions of children start school Girls march at head of class after years of ban by the Taliban:


John Daniszewski
Southam News
Sunday, March 24, 2002

After years of being turned away at the schoolhouse gates, girls marched proudly at the head of the class Saturday at a ceremony marking the start of school and the resumption of education for children in this country freeing itself from the Taliban's grip.

"A great day for Afghanistan," declared interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai after being showered with golden confetti by a choir of gaily dressed girl 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 nearly 24 years of war in Afghanistan.

"Today we cry out of happiness," he said, collecting himself.

Classes opened at 3,000 primary schools across Afghanistan for as many as two million school children. Karzai, UNICEF director Carol Bellamy and the Aga Khan, a Muslim leader and philanthropist, 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 clutching pouches of UN-provided pens, pencils and copybooks.

Their 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 percent 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 UN agency for children had given out 7,700 tons of school supplies, including text books, teaching materials, slates, pencils, chalk and 500 classroom tents for places where school buildings have been destroyed.

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 a teacher would need for 80 elementary-level pupils, down to slates, exercise books, blunt-end scissors, a plastic clock to teach time, chalk and blackboard paint.

Officials acknowledged that many schools remain in abysmal condition, lacking desks and chairs.

"We have a lot of work to do in that area," said Karzai. "But education will not wait for that -- education will go on."

Karzai said he was determined to make education the largest item in the country's budget and to ensure that teachers are well paid.

Some girls had been trickling back to class over the past few months, enrolling in special catch-up classes 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. When challenged on its policy by Western officials, the Taliban would make the excuse that the country could not afford female education at a time when it was still at war with forces of the Northern Alliance.

(c) Copyright 2002 Southam News