Beards only on Kabul campus

March 21, 1997

KABUL University has reopened for an uncertain academic year short of cash, stationery and women students.

The Taliban Movement closed the university indefinitely when it swept into the Afghan capital last September. Its extreme interpretation of Islam excludes women from all but segregated basic education. Students must have beards.

Founded in 1932, Kabul University was once one of the finest in Asia with an impressive campus set against a spectacular backdrop of mountains. It boasted 900 lecturers, more than 300 holding doctorates from all around the world.

But since the Soviet Red Army rolled into Afghanistan in December 1979, the university has faced such a daunting saga of problems, including a huge brain drain, that it is remarkable it is open at all.

It was virtually destroyed after the fall of the Moscow-backed government of President Najibullah Ahmadzai in 1992. His opponents turned against each other, and some of the fiercest fighting took place across the university campus, reducing much of the university to rubble.

The president of Kabul University at the time was Amir Hassanyar. Standing in the remains of his charred office behind a burnt desk, he told the BBC how he would get the university started again.

He succeeded. Within a few months classes for several hundred students were organised in the remains of the polytechnic buildings a few kilometres away. He told the BBC: "We are a refugee university. We are a mobile university. We have started everything again from scratch. When we came here, there were no doors and no windows. With my professors, I went here and there and collected chairs. At the beginning, students and even professors sat on the floor."

Like the rest of Kabul, there was no electricity and no running water. Rockets were falling nearby. One law student, worried about being in class, said: "With the war going on, we are anxious about our families because we don't know what is happening to them while we are attending lectures."

Several lecturers were killed by a rocket soon after, and the university closed yet again.

But as front lines moved out of the city, building began. In March 1995, classes had restarted with about 4,000 students. "About a quarter of them were former fighters with the different warring factions, and the first lectures were held under trees and in empty rooms. Apart from those who had been fighting, there were those who had remained in Kabul as civilians taking the brunt of the conflict and others who had returned to the capital from exile as refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

The different parties who held power in Kabul all wanted to gain influence. "I tried to keep this pressure away and gradually the students got used to university life," said Dr Hassanyar.

One triumph was restoring the library, which had been emptied of books. "We collected them from all over the place, and re-purchased many of the more valuable volumes cheaply from bazaars and shops around the city. Now we have about 250,000 books."

By the time the Taliban came and closed the university, the student body had risen to 10,000, with 4,000 women. To be forced to close suddenly again after overcoming so many trials and tribulations would shatter lesser mortals.

But Dr Hassanyar is a fighter. He says the university is "the brain of the Afghan people, and vital for the future wealth of the country".

Shortage of funds is his biggest problem. Many of the staff who remain have simply not been paid. But he still plans to attract Afghan professors and lecturers back from abroad by persuading the United Nations and foreign countries to fund them for a term so they could become acclimatised to the new conditions. "If they return temporarily under these terms, maybe they will stay, and the brain drain from Afghanistan would be reversed," he says.

His optimism has paid rich dividends in the past, but the Taliban bans on women are a big barrier to foreign aid. Women cannot work outside their homes or attend schools and colleges for education. Because of this, no government has yet recognised the Taliban, and Western aid for any educational programmes is in jeopardy.

The Taliban insist that women will be allowed to work and be educated - albeit on a segregated basis - when the security situation settles. Western governments have yet to be convinced.

Before the Soviet occupation the university had excellent links around the world. Colleges in the United States helped the faculties of agriculture, engineering and education, France helped with medicine, law and political sciences, Germany with economics.

Dr Hassanyar and the Taliban are both appealing for these links to be reestablished, now that security in Kabul has been gained. Most of a whole generation in Afghanistan has meanwhile missed out on proper schooling, let alone further education.

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