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Afghan girls return to school after acid attacks

Teenage girls in blue and green burqas pour into the schoolyard, where they pull off their coverings, stuff them in their book bags and head to class. It almost seems as if the acid attacks never happened.
Afghanistan Acid Attack
Afghan school girls study at Mirwais Mena school in Afghanistan's Kandahar province on Jan 17.Allauddin Khan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Teenage girls in blue and green burqas pour into the schoolyard, where they pull off their coverings, stuff them in their book bags and head to class. It almost seems as if the acid attacks never happened.

But though classes have resumed, the students, their parents and the school's principal remain on edge two months later. The principal says better security promised by the government hasn't come. Some girls are too afraid to tell reporters their names or let their pictures be taken.

In November, three teams of men on motorbikes sprayed acid from squirt guns and water bottles onto 15 schoolgirls and teachers as they walked to the Mirwais Mena girls school in Kandahar, the southern city that is the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.

One girl's face was so badly burned that she was flown to India for treatment. Four others are still being treated at hospitals in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

The attackers' apparently hoped to scare girls from going to school. The Taliban banned girls from attending school during its 1996-2001 rule and insurgents in the south have repeatedly attacked schools in recent years as part of the insurgency against the government.

At first, the attacks worked.

"The school stayed empty for four days after the incident," said Mehmood Qaderi, the principal.

But after a campaign by Qaderi with parents and the government, nearly all of the school's approximately 1,500 students have returned.

Chaos and fear
Their attendance shows some Afghan families are willing to stand up to insurgents' attempts to sow chaos and fear in southern Afghanistan. But it wasn't easy, and it may not last.

The girls didn't return to class on their own, and many say they are still scared when they walk to school. One of the attack victims says the men who were arrested still manage to send her threats from jail.

The principal said his relatives are trying to persuade him to leave Afghanistan because he may be in danger. But Qaderi devoted so much energy and emotion to getting classes going again that he wants to stay.

He said that after a few days of empty desks he decided he would have to persuade the parents to let their daughters return. He called a meeting of families.

"I explained to the parents that if you do not send your girls to school, it means you are losing and the enemies are winning," said Qaderi, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

The parents offered agreement, and Qaderi thought he had succeeded. But a week later, most students were still staying at home.

Qaderi went to the government. He asked for police to be stationed in front of the school and on the main roads. He asked for buses for students who live farther away. He even asked for a pedestrian bridge to be built over a highway so girls could avoid dangerous traffic.

The provincial governor and the police chief agreed to all the demands, Qaderi said. Police started appearing outside the school, so Qaderi had another meeting with parents.

"I invited the fathers and mothers and said that the government promised they would provide security for the students," he said.

'Classes are full'
The parents agreed again, and this time girls started showing up.

"Now you see the classes are full. Almost every one is attending school, even the girl who was most seriously hurt," Qaderi said.

But the additional police lasted only two weeks and students are getting nervous, Qaderi said. The buses never appeared.

The Education Ministry in Kabul said the promised buses and police guards are part of a larger plan to increase security at schools in regions where students or schools have been attacked.

"It is not only for that school, but for six provinces (where) we have problems with security for girls' education," spokesman Asif Nang said. He said 682 schools countrywide are closed because of security concerns, most of them in the south.

He said plans for guards and buses are awaiting approval for financing, noting the underfinanced ministry faces an immense task in trying to educate the country's youngsters. About 6 million children, including 2 million girls, are in school today. Under the Taliban, fewer than 1 million — mostly boys — attended class.

Wary vigilance
Calls to police and provincial officials about increased security at Mirwais Mena were not returned.

A sense of wary vigilance pervades the school. Many of the students and teachers refused to let an Associated Press photographer take their pictures — or gave permission only if they could cover their faces.

"You shouldn't show our faces. You will get us in trouble," said a ninth-grader who refused to give her name. "I don't have a name," she said.

One of the acid attack victims, 15-year-old Atifa Bibi Husainai, said she is committed to school because Afghanistan needs more education.

Atifa said she gets threats from the men charged with the attacks. "They are being held by the police, but still they send threats through other people, saying, 'If our men are sentenced we won't let you live.'"

Qaderi said his relatives abroad are constantly warning him he is in danger and he should quit. He says he plans to stay, but worries the girls may start drifting away because of security.

"All these things that I promised to the parents on behalf of the government, they are not happening," he said.

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