Communities and UNICEF united to protect schools in Afghanistan
A burning school
Juma Khan, 13, ran barefoot from home to school in the middle of a windy June night to douse the flames leaping up from the roof of his school in the remote village of Arzankar in Charbolak district of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. All Juma Khan remembers is his father saying that they needed to be faster than the wind to save the school.
“The next moment I was up and running with my father and many others from my village and the neighbouring villages too. All of us were heading towards the roaring flames ahead of us in the dark night. The fire was spreading sideward and downwards, so we could tell the roof had been set on fire first,” said Juma Khan.
Was little Juma Khan frightened by the raging fire? “There was no time for that. But I was very angry and upset to hear that someone set fire to my school on purpose. Friends from 17 villages around here study in my school. Why would anybody want to burn it?” he asked.
This was indeed the question a lot of children from the school were asking the next day when they gathered around the charcoal remnants of Qazi Farooq Secondary School. Little girls and boys were crying. The fire had not only burnt their school, it had charred their innocence, taken away their childhood. Some parents were crying as well. All were distraught.
The community fights back
“We were lucky to have water in the stream by the school from melted snow up in the mountains,” said Haji Ghulam Ali, Chief of the village ‘shura,’ the local governing body. The northern region of Afghanistan has been in the grips of a drought for almost seven years. The villagers were quick and put off the fire with water and mud.
The incident took place on 7 June. “We were in the middle of final exams here,” said School Principal Mohammad Naeem. “We did not want children to miss their exams because of the fire. This challenge became a source of strength to the community.” Within two days the rubble from charred beams, burnt roofs and damaged walls was cleared. “We have a system of ‘kaar e dastajaami’, or community labour and everyone contributes,” explained Principal Mohammad Naeem. After the incident the villagers have put two guards on duty. The local police have given them hunting guns. Families too, take turns to keep a watch at night.
UNICEF’s timely assistance
UNICEF Zonal Office in Mazar was informed of the incident in the early morning of 7 June. Education Officer Ahmadshah Azizyar followed up promptly with the district authorities and the community of Arzankar village. After a quick assessment of the damage, UNICEF provided tents and floor mats for classrooms, wooden beams to repair the roof, and stationery for the students. With this assistance the school was able to resume and the exams were held with minimum delay.
Luckily the compacted mud-brick walls did not crumble, nor did the spirit of the community. There was an opportunity now to overhaul the school premises built in 1972. The community was invited to an innovative partnership project: UNICEF could provide basic building material to the School Management Committee comprised of school headmaster and two members from the community to monitor and supervise school construction. “That way we will also be able to expand the verandah and protect the walls from rain and snow,” Principal Mohammad Naeem said in agreement.
Girls not left behind
Until the Qazi Farooq Secondary School is fully functional again, some girl students have gathered in a UNICEF-provided tent under a mulberry tree with Latifa Jan, one of the three female teachers in Arzankar. Juma Khan’s sister Shughla Jan is here and wants to be a doctor. She wants to work for her ‘qaum’ or her community. “I like to learn new things in school and teach them to others,” says another girl Fareba, an eager 14-year-old student. The girls and their parents are determined to put their school back on its feet so that all the children can continue their studies.
“We are soldiers of education, learning is our goal,
Our motto is knowledge, it makes us proud.
We hate darkness, we fight illiteracy,
In seeking knowledge,
We are brave and committed
Oh beloved homeland, our ‘watan’,
Once again we will turn you into a garden of flowers…”
The girls have a smile on their faces and hope in their eyes as they sing in chorus. Their words of courage drift afar in the hot afternoon breeze.
© UNICEF Afghanistan/2006