Risking their lives to get an education

After a string of deadly attacks on Afghan schools, children and young people struggle to overcome trauma while continuing their education.

By Murtaza Mohammadi
A boy stands among rubble, Afghanistan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi
13 September 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan, 13 September 2018 – After saying prayers for the fallen students, a small group of mourners descends a hill in the outskirts of Kabul, guided by the dim moonlight.

One man remains behind to light candles on all of the graves, using his scarf to cover his face and a steady stream of tears.

“Yours? A child? A sibling?” a fellow mourner asks.

The man does not look up. He slowly scans the headstones before settling his gaze on the horizon.

“All of them,” he says. “My students.”

Candles sit on the graves of fallen students, Afghanistan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Madadi
The teacher of the class that was attacked placed candles on the graves of the students who were killed.
Silhouettes of figures on a hill, Afghanistan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Madadi
A group of mourners gather on a hill in the outskirts of Kabul, where some of the victims of the attack on the Mau’ud Educational Centre were buried.

Repeated attacks on schools

The teenagers were victims of the 15 August attack on the Mau’ud Educational Centre in the western part of the Afghan capital. At least 40 students were killed – many more injured – as they studied for Kankoor, the university entrance exam.

It was one in a series of recent attacks deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and civilian infrastructure, particularly schools. The latest bombings occurred just two days ago in Nangarhar province, when multiple attacks hit three separate schools and a crowd of demonstrators, killing 21 civilians and injuring more than 60.

“I’m afraid of sitting in a classroom... No matter where, no matter what school and classroom, I don’t feel safe.”

“Something had changed forever”

Nematullah is a grade-12 student from Nawur, in the southeastern province of Ghazni. He, like many victims of the attack on Mau’ud educational centre, came to Kabul to prepare for the university entrance exam.

“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. I was so scared, I stayed outside for a while but had to go back for my friends.”

Back inside, Nematullah saw that many of his classmates had not survived. His close friend Salam was sitting silent and motionless on the floor of the classroom. Miraculously, he was alive.  Nematullah helped him out of the room.

“Somewhere inside of me I knew that something had changed forever,” he said.

Since that day, Nematullah hasn’t been able to sleep. He can’t stop thinking about the friends he lost. “So many lives were taken in a blink of eye. In a classroom full of students, over 150 maybe, so many dreams dashed – in one moment.”

Belongings of students in one side of a destroyed classroom, Afghanistan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2018/Mohammadi
Belongings of the students who lost their lives are put together in a corner in the classroom. More than 40 students were killed in the attack.

“I don’t feel safe”

Geesu, also in grade 12, had just taken a seat in the fourth row when the explosion occurred. She felt the reverberations in her back as she ran away. Outside the class, she fainted. She was taken to a hospital by her friends.

She has since recovered physically, but the psychological scars remain.

“I’m afraid of sitting in a classroom. No matter how good the teacher is, I can’t concentrate,” she says. “Thinking of that tragic day, losing so many of my friends in the attack… No matter where, no matter what school and classroom, I don’t feel safe.”

“To everyone who has gone through these hardships: do not stop... It takes time, but it’s so close to us – we are the ones to rebuild our devastated country."

“We are the future”

Despite the trauma, Geesu is certain of one thing: She can’t give up. Like Nematullah, she came from another province to prepare for university entrance exams, and she plans to remain in Kabul to continue her studies. “I have never been more determined to pursue my education and achieve what I have always wished for,” she says.

And she hopes that other students like her will not lose their resolve.

“To everyone who has gone through these hardships: do not stop,” she says. “Educate yourself, gain knowledge. This 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.”

There are currently an estimated 3.7 million children out of school in Afghanistan, many in areas affected by insecurity and violence. From 1 April to 30 June alone, there were 79 attacks against schools and education personnel.

Attacks on schools are one of the UN Security Council’s six grave violations against children in times of war. All parties to conflict have a direct responsibility to protect civilian populations.