Teaching in the shadow of death

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am

Fatema, 36, stretches out her hands to indicate the size of the pile of written death threats she has at home. They began arriving six months after she became a director of education in a province of Afghanistan where the Taleban has been making inroads in recent months.

For two years she was responsible for 480 schools and 240,000 students, 70,000 of them girls.

'When the first letter was left on our doorstep at night, I hid it from my family in case they did not want me to carry on with my job,' Fatema said. 'But my husband found the second one - he saw someone leaving it at the door.'

A softly spoken but quietly determined women, she reaches into her handbag, pulls out a wad of letters and reads them one by one. 'The Taleban are uneducated, so there are quite a lot of mistakes,' she said.

The first letter, which is unsigned, says: 'Hello Fatema, I have a request that you stop doing this work ... If you continue I will kidnap you, take you in a car and kill you ... we know where you live.'

Another, carrying the seal of the Defenders of the Arab Emirates, says: 'If you do not close the government schools we will kill you.'

A third signed by the office of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taleban leader, says: 'If continue with schools you have no reason to complain for what happens to you.'

There is no doubting the seriousness of the threats or the aims of those who issue them, as the fate of her colleagues will testify.

A fourth letter, signed by the Office of Islamic Emirates, was addressed to both Fatema and a director of a district with 48 schools. It said: 'Close schools for the girls and stop what you are doing. It is your Islamic duty not to continue with these schools.'

Four days after Fatema received the letter, the district director was killed.

Before him, four officials in another district of her province were assassinated, including a director and deputy director of education.

'Three days before he died, the director came to my office and said 'the Taleban will kill me. What will I do'?' Fatema recalled. 'I said, 'come from your district to my office and we'll work it out, don't go back there'. But on his way home they kidnapped him, gouged out his eyes then slit his throat.'

Fatema cites other cases: a teacher killed on his way to school last year and another district director of education killed two months ago.

'At the beginning of the year he too came to me,' Fatema said. 'He said: 'Please give me some weapons to defend myself. They may kill me'. I took him to the governor and told him everything. But no one protected him. He was killed by the Taleban.'

That director ran a district where there were no girls' schools. The Taleban had ordered him to close the boys' schools. Although the common perception is that the Taleban is against education for girls, the reality is that it is against education for most people.

Even when the Taleban ran the country and banned girls and female teachers from school, boys' education was starved of investment and the infrastructure was degraded drastically by war and neglect.

'They don't want education,' Fatema said. 'They only want madrassas.'

Her crime, in the eyes of the Taleban, and the al-Qaeda-related factions supporting them, is that she has devoted her life to promoting education.

A mother of six children and married to a surgeon, Fatema graduated from the English literature department of Kabul University when the mujahedeen entered the Afghan capital in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.

'All of our lives were destroyed from then on. Our house, everything, went in the fighting,' she said.

Her family fled to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, where she took a course in teaching English and began teaching the language to girls and boys. When the Taleban entered that city she had to move south.

There, Fatema established a home school with six teachers - all of them banned from working by the Taleban - teaching 400 girls in secret.

'At that time the Taleban were very dangerous people,' Fatema said. 'My students hid books under their clothes but carried a holy book in their hands. When they were stopped by the Taleban and asked where they were going they showed their Holy Koran and said they were learning this.'

One time when she was caught teaching she was whipped.

After the Taleban was ousted, Fatema sent her students to government schools and became a teacher trainer before being elevated to director by the provincial governor.

'As director, my hope was that all girls would go to school and I set up girls' schools everywhere, even in areas still controlled by the Taleban,' she said.

She sought tents and stationery from the Provincial Reconstruction Team and, where there were no teachers, asked the local mullahs, as the most educated members of the community, to teach the children.

But in some areas, when the Taleban learned of her efforts they burned the schools down and banned children from attending.

Fatema continued her struggle and set up 200 community-based schools - in villagers' homes - with the help of the UN Children's Fund, Unicef. The target was one school per village for children from at least 10 families to study up to third grade.

'To do this we had to get the support of the religious leaders, because without their support you can't do anything,' she said.

So she prepared meetings of councils of elders and mullahs to garner support.

To this day, access to schooling in her province is greatly affected by the level of security. Where it exists, the provision of education is high. Where it is bad, the Taleban exert pressure for schools to be closed, or threaten or destroy them.

'They do not want education for their children,' Fatema said. 'They prefer to send them to madrassas in Pakistan.

'They want to recruit these students to get involved with the drug trade, with terrorist attacks, and to brainwash them to be against the government and against the US. They are not interested in sending them to school.'

When the night letters started appearing, Fatema went to the Provisional Reconstruction Team and learned how to use a pistol. At the end of 2005 she was given authority to carry a .38 Beretta, and at the end of last year, 11/2 years after the threats began, she was finally given bodyguards.

'At the beginning, I could not sleep,' Fatema said. 'During the night I was wondering how I would be killed. But from the time of the second note I was no longer afraid.'

She said the Taleban went to the mosques and decreed that anyone working as a teacher or in a school would be targeted. Afterwards, they sent threatening letters to the offices and schools.

During her tenure, 13 schools were destroyed and 35 forced to close because of the constant threats. She believes the situation in her province is getting worse.

'This year the Taleban's viciousness and violence has increased dramatically,' she said. Fatema believes the problem is exacerbated by the expanding drug trade and the increasing use of children in their production, which leads to children carrying out attacks for the Taleban.

'They pluck children from a very young age and brainwash them because they know if they get educated they will think for themselves,' she said.

'What we need is a crackdown on the drug trade, providing alternative forms of employment for people. If there were a healthy economy in Afghanistan, people would stop resorting to violence and stop drifting towards the Taleban.'

In the meantime, with Afghan security forces stretched, the protection of schools has been a challenge. Fatema tackled this through a community protection scheme, which involved setting up a committee of parents or community members for each school and urging them to stand together against attacks.

In some areas this was quite successful, as villages placed an 8pm to 8am curfew around the vicinity of the school and posted people to keep watch against intruders.

Fatema has since left her post but carries on providing education in a learning centre supported by the US-based Afghan Friends Network.

Despite the threats, last month she accepted an offer to address a panel of experts in New York, arranged by Unesco, to highlight the plight of education officials and teachers in Afghanistan.

The panel discussion was part of the US launch of 'Education Under Attack', the first global study of violent military and political attacks against education targets, which suggested there had been a dramatic increase in such incidents in the past three years.

It noted the Afghan education ministry said militants killed 85 students and teachers and destroyed 187 schools last year. Human Rights Watch documented more than 190 bombing, arson and shooting incidents against students, teachers and education officials, up from 91 in 2005.

Fatema said the government's failure to generate jobs, and mistakes by Nato forces causing the deaths of innocent civilians, had allowed the Taleban to 'become again a powerful threat against the people' but particularly against education staff, schools and pupils.

'Schools and educational institutions are again being burned, teachers and educational personnel are being killed,' she said, but added she considered it her duty never to give up.

'Teaching is my job, school is my honour,' she said, issuing her own plea to the international community.

'Afghanistan is a poor country. We have not anything for our children, we have not enough food for them, not enough clothes, but the only thing people want is education. I ask the world to give the education to our students, to give them safety and peace.'

Brendan O'Malley is author of Education Under Attack, a Unesco study of political and military violence against students, teachers, academics, education officials and trades unionists worldwide.