IWPR, December 12, 2008
Kandahar Schools Empty After Acid Attack on Girls
Arrest of alleged Taliban militants for attack on schoolgirls fails to reassure nervous and angry population.
By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee
The Mirwais Meena girls’school used to be a bustling place with over 1300 students. But now the halls and grounds are nearly empty, the swings hang motionless on the recreation field.
On a late November morning, there were only a dozen or so girls and three female teachers to be seen. The rest, traumatised by a vicious attack on November 12 that left several girls disfigured and two blinded, have chosen to stay at home.
Shamsia, an Afghan school girl, recovers in a hospital after two men on a motorbike threw acid on her in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Nov 12, 2008. Two men on a motorbike threw acid on six Afghan girls walking to school in Kandahar on Wednesday, hospitalizing two of the girls with serious burns, said Dr. Sharifa Siddiqi.
A middle-aged teacher, her burqa draped over her arm, was making her way slowly out of the building. The click of her high heels echoed in the halls, and she wore a very sad expression. She said her name was Najila.
“That Wednesday was a very, very bad day,” she said. “Some girls fainted; they were so afraid that the next day it would be their turn. We had never heard of anything like this before. I want to ask those who did this, ‘Why?’ Girls should be able to go to school and study. I do not know when this country will ever be okay.”
The attack came as the girls and their teachers were leaving the school, according to eyewitnesses. Men on motorbikes, wielding what appeared to be water pistols, squirted acid on several groups of girls and their teachers. Many were wearing burqas, but they were targeted just the same. School officials say that most of the girls were related, and they all came from the same village.
Atifah was one of the group that was attacked. She escaped with injuries to her hands, but her cousins were not so lucky.
“There was a man with a black pistol in his hand, and he was glaring at me,” she recalled. “Then he pointed the pistol at me and squirted acid at me. It got on my hands, but my cousins had acid thrown on their burqas. One of my cousins is in very bad shape now. She got acid in her eyes. They have now sent her to India for treatment.”
The attacks shocked the country, and the world. Footage of the injured girls was shown on CNN, the BBC, and other international media, in addition to topping the news in Afghanistan.
But despite the government’s well-publicised late-November arrest of ten men who have been accused of involvement in the incident, feelings are running high in Kandahar.
The principal of the school, Mahmoud Qaderi, told IWPR that his student body had been severely traumatised by the attack.
“First of all, I have to say that this was one of the saddest things I have experienced in my life,” he said. “Our students and teachers were saying ‘there is no security, there is no police.’ They were very upset, because they no longer feel like they can come to school. We used to have 1300 pupils here. Nowadays we get only around 30. Three female teachers showed up. This is nothing.”
Fatima, whose daughter had acid thrown on her face, has pushed her to go back.
“I will never let my daughter refuse to go to school,” she said, standing with the girl on the school grounds. “The government has to find a way to provide transportation for the students, particularly for the girls. Look at Pakistan and Iran. They send their girls to school, but we cannot. I will never block the way for my daughter to go to school. Those who did this thing should know that is not human. My daughter even wore hijab, but they threw acid on her face.”
Mothers like Fatima are rare. Many parents are keeping their children at home, say sources close to the department of education.
Mohammad Anwar Khan, who heads Kandahar’s department of education, would not speak with journalists. But one official spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The number of children in school all over Kandahar has dropped dramatically,” he said. “Attendance is down about 30 per cent. If the people responsible are not arrested and hanged, I do not think that girls will go back.”
On November 25, the governor of Kandahar, Rahmatullah Raufi, announced that ten men had been arrested in connection with the attack. “Several of them” had confessed, he added.
There has been a significant decline recently in the number of pupils, especially girls, attending school in the central province of Ghazni. The provincial council says 15,000 pupils have stopped going to school so far this year. Fifty schools have closed because of the security situation.
BBC News, Dec. 12, 2008
Mohammad Daoud Daoud, deputy interior minister, told the media in Kandahar that the men had been paid the equivalent of 2,000 US dollars for each girl they attacked. He said that, once the investigation was completed, the men would be punished to the full extent of the law.
While the world press and much of the Afghan media has rushed to put the blame squarely on the Taliban, the insurgents deny responsibility. Their objections to girls’ schooling have been well-documented, but such attacks, say Taliban officials, are to be condemned.
Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Taliban in the south, told IWPR that his group was not involved in the outrage.
“This criminal act was not done by the Taliban,” he said. “We condemn this. I say it again – we have not done this thing, and those who were arrested are not our people. This government will say anything, and they punish people who are not even guilty.”
Abdul Ahmad Mohmmadyar, a member of Ruhi cultural society in Kandahar, is sceptical of the government’s claims that they have the perpetrators behind bars.
“I think that the authorities are just trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” he told IWPR. “I am sure that they have arrested some people. But how do we know they are the real criminals? They have not shown us these men. Those who are responsible should be hanged right in the main intersection of Kandahar.”
Education and security officials are now coming under pressure to take measures to protect the students. Many parents and girls are adamant that the province should provide buses to take them to the school, to avoid the dangers of the road.
“Our students come from very far away,” said Mirwaid Meena’s principal, Qaderi. “If there was a transportation system, 80 per cent of the problem would be solved. I have asked about this many times, from the government. But nobody has done anything about it.”
Atifah is also eager to get back to school, along with her classmates. She agrees with her principal that transportation is the answer.
“I think a good way to get all those girls back to school is to give them buses,” she said.
But until the problem is solved, the residents of Kandahar remain angry. They are looking for someone to blame, and for many the main culprit is the weak central government.
“I and my family are very upset,” said Zahra, whose daughter was a pupil at Mirwais Meena. “If girls cannot go to school, I am worried that my daughter and others will remain illiterate. The government and [President Hamed] Karzai should take serious steps. Karzai will ask us for votes in the next elections? While a girl cannot go to school? How would we vote for him?”
Afghanistan’s presidential elections are scheduled for next year, with Karzai facing stiff opposition.
Qaderi just wants his school back the way it was.
“Our school was a good school,” he said. “But these things happen. This is Afghanistan, after all. I think it will take time to raise people’s morale. And then, God willing, we will have our students back.”
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