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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 12:07 GMT
Tunes of hope at Kabul University
Campus of Kabul University
The once proud university now lacks basic facilities
By the BBC's Alan Johnston in Kabul

The old Afghan-style accordion was brought out into the sunshine of the gardens of Kabul University's Fine Arts Faculty and laid down gently.

The vice-dean paused a moment to check the keys and the bellows, and then began to play an Afghan dance tune - the first notes to echo through the Music Department for five years.

"The instrument isn't perfect, and I am no expert on it," Mohammad Hussein-Zardah said. "But after five years I am proud to have been able to play it again."

The faculty lost all its instruments when its stores were destroyed in the fighting that ruined vast tracts of Kabul during the early 1990s.

Man playing the accordion at Kabul University
For years the accordion had to be hidden from the Taleban

The department was so broke that by the time the Taleban stormed Kabul, all that it had managed to acquire was two drums, and the old accordion.

But the Taleban's loathing of all things musical meant that they would have destroyed the instrument if they had come across it - so it had to be hidden.

Mr Hussein-Zardah wrapped it in a cloth and stashed it behind a wheelbarrow and oil drums in an out of the way store-room, then sealed the door.

"It is hard to put into words what it feels like to be able to start putting the department back into some operation after these years of darkness," said Mr Hussein-Zardah after breaking the seal and retrieving the instrument.

Glorious past

The faculty may have reclaimed its accordion, but like the rest of the university - and the rest of the country - it has been brought to its knees by more than two decades of war and political upheaval.

In the 1950s and 60s the university was one of the finest institutions of its kind in Asia, the intellectual heart of the country and the pride of Afghanistan.

The campus, with its avenues running between stands of fir trees, was largely built with German aid money, and the United States, Britain and France all sponsored faculties.

We don't have laboratories, we don't have proper libraries and our text books are decades out of date

Professor Yawar

But the mood changed with the coming of Afghanistan's Communist period. The Westerners left, and Russians became the dominant foreign influence on the campus.

There was repression of students with Maoist and Islamist leanings, and the spectre of the draft hung over young men that the regime needed in its fight in the mountains with guerrillas of the mujahideen.

But the university really began to suffer when those same mujahideen fighters finally captured Kabul and began to wrestle over the spoils.

Bombed out stores of the Music Department at Kabul University
The storage room of the music department was damaged during years of war

Two factions of what is now the Northern Alliance fought each other from faculty to faculty in battles that destroyed much of the campus - including Mr Hussein-Zardah's Music Department stores and the instruments in them.

Professor Yawar studied at Kabul University, and went on to teach there. He remembers his student days fondly:

"It was a glorious time in my life. We had modern facilities, we had good teachers from around the world, and very high standards."

Lack of paper

"But we lost everything, there was fighting, burning, looting. And I was forced to witness the destruction of the place in which I had spent my life."

The university has done it's best to stagger on, but it is a battered shell of the fine institution that it once was.

Ageing academics like Professor Yawar sit at bare desks in icy offices.

There has been no water or electricity for nearly 10 years. There are no phones, no computers, there does not even seem to be any paper.

Female student at Kabul University
Women return to their studies after years of forced absence

Even more seriously, there are hardly any students.

Afghanistan's smashed education system is producing few who can go on to higher education, and fewer still who can afford to.

Professor Yawar's Education Department managed to graduate just one teacher last year. The Fine Arts Faculty only has eight students, and another faculty is said to have two students and 16 professors on the books.

The academics keep clocking-on in the hope of picking up dismal wages that are now five months late.

"We don't have laboratories, we don't have proper libraries and our text books are decades out of date. We need everything", says Professor Yawar.

Return of women

"We professors are all getting old. We need the new generation to come on and replace us - we need educated young people to reconstruct this country."

But through the sunshine in the gardens, like a ray of hope comes Zarmina - a young woman delighting in the demise of the Taleban.

It is her first day back on the campus from which she was barred by the Taleban, who prohibited nearly all female education.

"I am very, very happy to be back....I am studying law," she says, her broken English coming in excited bursts.

"I want to be a judge, a good judge. I was at home for five years - it was very hard. And I don't like this," she says, gesturing at the all enveloping burka that she is still wearing - but held up so that her face is showing.

She says it is good to feel the sun on her face again, and no doubt it is good too for the university to have young women back on the campus dreaming of great things in a new Afghanistan.

See also:

13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan women find new freedom
29 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul studies uncertain future
17 May 01 | South Asia
Taleban shuts more Afghan schools
27 Apr 00 | South Asia
Afghanistan's bleak education record
02 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kabul's new lease of life?
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