Afghanistan schools occupied by security forces and targeted by militants

Over a quarter of schools in Afghanistan's Kandahar province station armed forces or remain closed

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Blast walls, armed police officers and the remains of a bombed out building. On first glance it looks like any other army checkpoint in Afghanistan. But then there are the children sitting in ruined buildings on wooden desks, reciting lessons with little shelter from the scorching sun.

War has taken its toll on Assad Suri Primary School, in Kandahar’s Zhari district, about an hour’s drive from the provincial capital. Those walls that are not blown up by rockets and air strikes are shrapnel-hit and tumbledown. Even the blackboard is riddled with bullet holes.

Metres away from the pupils, a building hosting a police barracks is fortified with sandbags and armed sentries.

“People think it’s an army base. They don’t know it’s a school,” explains Akhtar Mohammad, one of the teachers. “That’s exactly what makes it dangerous. Students come here to study, but they immediately become a target.”

In Kandahar, 98 out of the southern province’s 366 schools are either occupied by armed forces or closed entirely, according to the provincial governor.

Across the country, the picture is comparably bleak. In 2018, 1,150 Afghan schools were closed due to conflict, the United Nations says, affecting 203,000 girls and 341,000 boys. In many remote areas, there are no schools at all.

Despite the Afghan government investing an average of nearly four per cent of GDP in education since 2001, the sector consistently takes a backseat to more pressing security concerns.

It is hardly surprising then that just 31 per cent of Afghans can read – one of the lowest rates worldwide, contributing to further rural-urban divides, with a majority of city-dwellers educated, and remote populations growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of centralised government services.

Education has experienced nine-fold growth since the American occupation in 2001, but provincial analysis shows a high proportion of out-of-school children, the World Bank says. Rural children are 10 per cent more likely to be out of school compared to the national average.

Originally built in 2003 with government support, Assas Suri school has been occupied for the past 10 years. First by the Taliban, then by the Americans and lately the Afghan army.

“When the school first opened, we had about 2,000 students, but Zhari district quickly became one of the centres of the war,” says community elder and former police chief Mohammad Dawood. “Dialogue between the government and opposition would help. They are our people, but we don’t communicate. The Taliban areas are still only half an hour’s drive away.”

Students sit in their classroom at Assad Suri Primary School in Kandahar's Zhari District. Many of the buildings have been destroyed in airstrikes and by blasts, leaving classrooms exposed and bullet riddled. Part of the school continues to be occupied by the local police.
Students sit in their classroom at Assad Suri Primary School in Kandahar's Zhari District. Many of the buildings have been destroyed in airstrikes and by blasts, leaving classrooms exposed and bullet riddled. Part of the school continues to be occupied by the local police.

Today, the school is partially occupied, with the local police having taken over several of the former classrooms, now fenced in by blast walls and barbed wire. Of nearly 300 students, only 50 are girls.

Aisha, aged nine, is one of them. To keep boys and girls separated, she attends classes in the afternoons, while boys go in the mornings.

“I’m not scared to come here,” she says, sitting on the floor in one of the bombed out classrooms. “Most girls I know can’t go to school at all. I don’t like the policemen roaming around, but this is my only chance.”

With an even lower female literacy rate of 17 per cent – most of them concentrated in the capital Kabul – Aisha is one of the few girls attending school in Zhari district.

“It’s already hard to convince parents to send their daughters to school, but it becomes even more difficult when schools are occupied by armed men,” explains Mr Dawood.

He continues to teach, even though he hasn’t received his salary of 3,800 Afghani – roughly Dh180 – in six months. “Payment delays by the government are common, but if all teachers were to stop work, there would be no classes,” he says.

Once school is out, he heads out to the fields to work as a farmer until late in the evening.

Ten-year-old Rahmatullah also works to support his family as a farmer in the afternoons, after attending school in the mornings. Wearing an olive green shalwar kameez, Afghanistan's traditional dress, he crouches on the floor of Shahid Niamatullah Primary School in Kandahar's Panjwayi District. He quietly talks about the war that has left his family devastated. "My father was killed by gunfire," he remembers. "I still hear the sounds of the bullets when I sleep."

Rahmatullah started attending classes when his school reopened earlier this year in January. Built in 2004, it only operated for a few years before it was occupied by Canadian International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) troops, then the Afghan National Police. Today the building is a school again, though bullet-riddled and with a heavily fortified army checkpoint just a few hundred metres away.

Panjwayi District is seemingly quiet these days, but bears scars of years of fighting. The dry and dusty area is specked with ruins of houses. Villagers point to the nearby hills, where insurgents used to hide in caves. Countless army and police checkpoints are reminders that the threat is still present.

“That’s exactly the problem. Bullets don’t distinguish between civilians and soldiers,” says Tom Ogwal, a protection coordinator with the Norwegian Refugee Council, advocating for the end of school occupations in Kandahar. “Students don’t only focus on their lessons here, but also have to learn what to do and how to act when there’s an attack.”

In Panjwayi District, school attendance remains low. Just 128 children – including 10 girls – attend Shahid Niamatullah Primary School.

Some parents say they feel comfortable with the nearby armed troops, considering them a protection force for their children. While teacher's salaries are paid from Kabul – often after months-long delays – local families contribute to the school’s upkeep, such as making contributions to buy text books.

For their part, Afghan police often see little issue with occupying education facilities.

“It’s due to economic problems that we use school buildings,” explains Haji Lal Mohammad, Panjwayi’s Police Commander. “Besides that, there is no need for all of the schools, that’s why the police are there. There are other schools operating in the area.”

Speaking from his office compound, which was built by ISAF, he adds: “A few years ago, this was a war zone and one of Afghanistan’s most insecure districts. We have to put up checkpoints to keep control of the area.”

But the province’s newly-appointed governor Hayatullah Hayat, previously the governor of Nangarhar who just finished his first month in office in Kandahar, opposes the use of schools by armed groups. “There’s a clear instruction that schools should not be occupied. We have to kick them out,” he says. “This year, I want all of the schools to be open again.”

At Assad Suri Primary School, despite its partial occupation by police and its war damage, the student register is slowly increasing. Children from 15 surrounding villages attend. In the early afternoons, the school is bustling as a few hundred boys pack up their notebooks, wave the police goodbye and make their way home on their bicycles.

"Some students and parents like the police and even feel safe having them around. But some don't like sharing the building with them," Mr Mohammad the teacher said. "Either way, I don't see things changing anytime soon."