‘Safe learning' in Afghanistan

For Afghanistan’s children and young people going to school is a daily risk with no guarantees of returning home

By Murtaza Mohammadi
Belongings of the students who lost their lives are put together in a corner in the classroom.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi

07 September 2018

Two days following the attack on Mau’ud Educational Center in the western part of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, tens of students who had lost their lives were buried on top of a hill in the outskirts of the city. Later that night, a small crowd of relatives gathered under the dim moonlight to pray for their souls. “As the mourners dispersed downhill into the darkness, one man remained to light candles on all graves. Then sat there on the dirt, covered his face with his scarf and quietly let his tears flow. Yours? A child? A sibling? I asked. His eyes scanning the headstones, then gazing into the distant horizon, he said, all of them, my students,” narrates Sayed Madadi.

Mourners dispersing downhill
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Madadi
The teacher staying behind, lighting candles on the graves
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Madadi

Nematullah, 19 years old talks about what he and many of his classmates went through while a suicide attacker detonated his explosives in the middle of their classroom in Mau’ud Educational Center located in western part of the capital, Kabul.

A life changing moment

Nematullah is a grade-12-student at the Borjegay high school in Nawur, Ghazni. He came to Kabul to prepare for ‘Kankoor’ the entrance exam for university at Mau’ud educational center. He stays in Kabul with his brother who supports him with his studies. “We were out of the classroom for a break, and several students had already returned, waiting for the class to resume. I was about to step into the class when the whole classroom blew up right in front of me,” says Nematullah. “Everyone started running away, so did I, fearing a second explosion may occur. So scared, I stayed outside for a while but had to go back for my friends,” added Nematullah.

Nematullah, stepping into his classroom after the attack.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi
Nematullah, in his classroom

Back inside, he found many of his classmates, but unfortunately, they were no more alive. His close friend Salam who was also in the classroom had miraculously survived.  He found Salam just sitting on the floor in shock - not moving - not saying a word. He helped Salam to get out of the area. ‘ Somewhere inside of me I knew that something had changed forever’.

Shattered dreams

Since that day, Nematullah hasn’t been able to sleep well, thinking of his fallen friends. Looking at the wreckage of the classroom, he said: “So many lives were taken in a blink of eye, in a classroom full of students, over 150 maybe, so many dreams dashed in a  moment.”

It had taken Nematullah a lot of discussion and negotiation to persuade his father to let him come to Kabul. His father, as the principal of the school where Nematullah studies, insists that his son studies at a community led religious school in Ghazni. But he came to Kabul with great dreams. He wished to become a dentist. “I have to go back to Ghazni now. I am worried about the security here in Kabul, so are my parents. My father would call me back soon,” says Nematullah with disappointment. “My parents, my four brothers and two sisters want to see me alive”, added Nematullah.

A view of the destroyed classroom in Mau'ud
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi
Belongings of students who lost their lives, piled together in a corner of the classroom

Battling the trauma

Similarly, Geesu had just taken a seat in the fourth row after the break when the explosion went off. As she ran she was hit by quivers in her back. Outside the class, she fainted. She was then transferred to a hospital by her friends.

Geesu has five brothers and 4 sisters. A grade-12-student who came to Kabul from Jaghori district of Ghazni province to prepare for the university entry exam. She has recovered physically, but traumatized yet.

“I had great plans when I came to Kabul. I wanted to prepare well for the university entry exam, to score high grades so I can pursue my studies in Law, to become a prosecutor in the future. Now, I am so concerned and so stressed. I fear sitting in a classroom. No matter how good a teacher is, I can’t concentrate, I can’t learn, thinking of that tragic day, loosing so many of my friends in the attack on our classroom, no matter where, what school and classroom, I feel unsafe.”

Determined to surmount the odds and become the agents of change

Though worried about future, Geesu is certain about one thing. She doesn’t have to give up. She is determined to stay and to learn. She hasn’t even talked to her family about what she went through lest they call her back home. She has planned to prepare for ‘Kankoor’ before she goes back to Ghazni for her final exams. “I have never been so more determined to peruse my education and achieve what I have always wished for,” says Geesu.

“Nothing weakens me. To many others who went through these hardships, do not stop, educate yourself, and gain knowledge. That is the key to our success. It takes time, but it’s so close to us. We are the ones to rebuild our devastated country, we are the future,” says determined Geesu.

Two days after the attack, students from the previous year installed a banner on gate of the Mau’ud Educational Centre saying: ‘We will rebuild you Mau’ud
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi

Two days after the attack, students from the previous year installed a banner on gate of the Mau’ud Educational Centre saying: ‘We will rebuild you Mau’ud'.

 

The attack on the educational centre in Kabul killed at least 40 teenage students, boys and girls and injured many others who were studying for the university entrance exam (Kankoor). There is currently an estimated 3.7 million children out-of-school in Afghanistan who are often found in areas affected by insecurity and violence. Since the start of 2018, over 1000 schools across Afghanistan have been forced to close at some point due to direct attack, threats or intimidation, with over 500,000 children missing out on learning.