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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 14:30 GMT
Back to school in Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai at Kabul school
Karzai presided over an emotional school ceremony
Thousands of primary and secondary schools have re-opened in Afghanistan for the start of the school year - the first since the fall of the Taleban.

Almost two million children were back in school - significantly, many of them girls who were banned from the classroom during the years of Taleban rule.

Our children are the best in the world

Hamid Karzai
The resumption of normal schooling within three months of the interim government taking control in Kabul is largely due to the airlift of textbooks from the United States in time for the new school year.

However, more than two million children in rural areas are still without access to education because their school buildings were destroyed and teachers forced to flee under Taleban rule.

'Tears of joy'

To mark the return to education, Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, took part in a ceremony at the Amani High School in Kabul.

He said: "Today, our nation is shedding tears, not out of misery but joy.

Girls at Mazar-e-Sharif school
This is the first legal schooling for girls for years
"Our children are one of the smartest and best-dressed children in the world. They are the best in the world," he said to loud applause.

Education Minister Abdul Rassoul Amin said: "We have decided to project a new image of ourselves. We have to forget the past if we want to rebuild this country."

Getting the 1.8 million children back to school in time for the new term is one of the biggest operations the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has ever undertaken.

About half of Afghanistan's schools were destroyed under the Taleban. Planes, jeeps and even donkeys have been used to get millions of books and teaching materials to the schools that are still open.

The books replace those destroyed by the Taleban, which opposed both the content and the illustrations in many of the old books.

"Just getting to this day took enormous effort," said Unicef Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

"That effort and dedication began with the Afghan interim administration. It made education a priority from day one of its existence, and has never relented," she added.

Excited pupils

The effort has been repaid by the enthusiasm of the students. The BBC's correspondent in Kabul, Susannah Price, said children gathered outside schools in the capital early, eager to get on with their studies.

The past few years have been very difficult. We have been prohibited from attending school

Anita Badghisi, pupil

"I'm so excited," said nine-year-old Maryam, who as a girl would not have been able to attend school under the Taleban.

During that time some girls did attend secret home school, but only at great risk to children and parents alike.

"It was very, very dangerous. If these children were caught coming to school, their fathers were taken to the police station at night and little girls were harassed and slapped," said Habiba Khilwati, a teacher at a home school.

Rural problem

The girls are now lining up to make up for lost time.

"The past few years have been very difficult. We have been prohibited from attending school, so now that there is an opportunity to register I have come," said Anita Badghisi, aged 18.

Boys cut up toilet rolls
Millions of children still cannot attend school

Also returning to school are Afghanistan's women teachers, who were previously banned from working.

But despite the achievement of re-opening more than 3,000 schools, more than half of Afghanistan's children are still denied the opportunity to attend.

The unlucky ones mainly live in rural areas where schools have been destroyed and there are no teachers because they fled during the rule of the Taleban.

Over the coming year, Afghan authorities hope to absorb another two million children into the education system.

The BBC's Adam Brookes
"Afghanistan is dragging itself back into the modern world"
Unicef UK Executive Director David Bull
"We have had to rebuild an entire education system"
See also:

23 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan joy as schools re-open
16 Mar 02 | Americas
Bush sends books to Afghanistan
06 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan women return to study
06 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan women embrace new prospects
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