Only a few dozen of about 570 female students attended class in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday after an apparent attack with poison gas sickened more than 80 girls this week.
It was the third apparent poisoning at a girls school in about two weeks. No one has claimed responsibility for the poisonings, but Education Ministry officials say they believe it is a series of poison gas attacks by militants who want to keep girls home from school.
The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups in Afghanistan who oppose female education have been known to target schoolgirls. Under the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime, girls were not allowed to attend school.
All the incidents took place in a region a few hours northeast of Kabul, which is not as opposed to education for girls as Afghanistan's conservative southern regions.
Students say they are frightened
Many students who did return to the Aftabachi school in Kapisa province Thursday said they were frightened. Between 22 and 25 girls of all ages huddled in one room as a teacher tried to give a lesson. Police were patrolling outside.
"Our students are really discomposed, and many say their families will not allow them to come to school because they believe it might happen again," said the school's principal, Mossena, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
More than 80 girls from the school were hospitalized Tuesday with headaches and vomiting after they encountered a strange odor in the school yard. More than a dozen adults also fell sick, including the principal, teachers and the custodial staff.
"I am scared because of this chemical thing happening in our school. My mother isn't allowing me because she is scared too," said 10-year-old Manila, a fourth grader at Aftabachi who stayed home Thursday.
The incident was the third alleged poisoning at girls' schools in about two weeks. On Monday, 61 schoolgirls and one teacher went to a hospital in neighboring Parwan province with a sudden illness that caused some to pass out. In late April, dozens of girls were hospitalized in Parwan after being sickened by what officials said were strong fumes or a possible poison gas cloud.
In all three cases, students reported a strange smell — ranging from flowers to perfume to cigarette smoke — before girls started collapsing and throwing up. Hospital officials report the same slate of symptoms across the incidents: headaches, vomiting, shivering and a stinging in the eyes.
The two Parwan schools are both operating normally, with full attendance, said Nazamuddin Rahimi, the province's deputy director of education.
Was sickness psychological?
Local education officials have suggested that the sickness in Parwan could have been psychological, touched off by one sick student collapsing. Medical journals have recorded incidents of apparent mass sickness in schools sparked off by the suggestion of a gas leak or other toxic exposure.
Blood samples have been sent to medical authorities in Kabul for testing, according to hospital officials.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. military said they examined one student from the first incident and found no traces of poison, but that she arrived at the military hospital hours after she fell sick and started receiving medicine so it was impossible to know if poison had already been cleared from her system.
Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green said their reports suggested the poisoning at that school came from a gas leak or other source other than an attack.