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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 12:19 GMT
Studying history at Kabul University
Women learn English
Afghanistan's education system is slowly starting to recover
By Alan Johnston in Kabul

An old Kabul University professor I know, a tall, thin man with a greying beard, loves to talk of the years when he was a student on the campus.

These were among Afghanistan's last years of peace - and the best days of the professor's life.

The university was one of Asia's finest. The elite of Afghanistan passed through its doors.

The campus was built mostly with American money, and British and French academics taught in faculty buildings that were linked by gardens and tree-lined avenues.


My professor friend watched as his university was gradually gripped by powerful, competing foreign ideas that would eventually destroy both it, and Afghanistan.

The setting was perfect, and the students had first class libraries, laboratories - everything.

But the country beyond the university was one of the world's most backward.

The fine young minds gathered on the campus were hungry for ideas that might bring rapid change. Some looked to Soviet-style Communism for a solution. Others were drawn to China and Maoism, and still others believed that the answers lay in political Islam.

My professor friend watched as his university was gradually gripped by powerful, competing foreign ideas that would eventually destroy both it and Afghanistan.

Homeless children in Kabul
Few children have access to education
There were demonstrations and fights and eventually some deaths on campus.

And after the April Revolution brought a Communist regime to power in 1978, it persecuted its Islamist enemies at the university.

The professor said goodbye to Western academic friends, and Russians moved in.

But the university's troubles really began after the Mujahideen guerrillas captured Kabul in the spring of 1992.

As factions that now make up the Northern Alliance fought between themselves, the campus became a battlefield.

Huge destruction

There was huge destruction as fighters held out in the different faculties, and looted everything worth taking.

An acquaintance of the professor who tried to stop the ransacking of the main library was beaten so badly that he died a few days later.

Books were carted off for sale, or burnt to keep the fighters warm through the winter.

Laboratory equipment was smashed and sold for scrap. Landmines were strewn in the campus gardens, and dead bodies stuffed down wells.

There were surreal moments too. The old professor remembers watching a fighter ride a donkey out of the rector's office. When he was asked what he was doing, the fighter said that the donkey belonged to the enemy, and that he'd just arrested it.

The professor was witnessing the ruin of the place in which he had spent his youth, and all his working life - and at the same time the fighting had spread to his nearby home.


The Taleban have gone now, and so have the landmines. But strolling through the gardens you still see everywhere the signs of destruction from the time that the university was a frontline.

Militiamen set up a machine-gun on the roof, and the professor remembers watching their legs shake with fear as they fired deafening bursts at the hill behind the university.

He could take it no more, and abandoned the house to the fighters. They looted everything, but not before he had returned to make one mad effort to save some of his academic books - an effort to preserve something from a more sane past.

He loaded the volumes onto a little cart and as he ran he heard the bullets whistle through the air above him.

The university had barely begun to recover from the impact of the fighting when the Taleban took control of Kabul - and the campus along with it - five years ago.

In line with their almost total ban on female education, women were barred from all faculties.

The university's academic range was drastically narrowed.

The professor remembers going to a seminar on war-related trauma, at which the Taleban minister of higher education dismissed the science of psychology as useless.

He told the audience that all the answers lay in the Koran.

Signs of destruction

The Taleban have gone now, and so have the landmines. But strolling through the gardens you still see everywhere the signs of destruction from the time that the university was a frontline.

There's been no water or electricity on the campus for nearly 10 years. Ageing professors like my friend sit in freezing offices.

A Kabul neighbourhood destroyed by years of fighting
The university was decimated in the fighting
They have not been paid their tiny wages for five months. There are no phones, no computers and no worthwhile books.

Worst of all there are very few students.

Afghanistan's devastated school system is not producing enough young people fit to go on to university, and fewer still can afford to.

The education faculty managed to produce just one teacher last year.

The whole university is on its knees, haunted by memories of a happier past.

But for a few weeks now, there has been talk of peace in Afghanistan. After all that has happened, it seems almost too much to hope for.

But you can see in his eyes that my friend the professor cannot help wondering if just maybe something of the old days will return.

That if Afghanistan can just hold to the course of peace, maybe the brightest and the best young Afghans will be back - aspiring to great things in a better country.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
report by Alan Johnston
"The whole University is on its knees, haunted by memories of a happier past."
See also:

06 Dec 01 | South Asia
Tunes of hope at Kabul University
29 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul studies uncertain future
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's clandestine army
17 May 01 | South Asia
Taleban shuts more Afghan schools
20 Mar 99 | South Asia
Appeal for Afghan children's education
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