Germans bid to rebuild Kabul

April 19, 2002

Kabul University is beginning the difficult task of rebuilding after being destroyed, literally and figuratively, by decades of war, despite a lack of basic infrastructure, including water, electricity and even windows.

"Of course water and medicine are important as well, but education, especially of women, is the key issue," said Clas Naumann, a professor of biology at the University of Bonn, who spent time in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s.

Professor Naumann returned recently from a fact-finding mission to Kabul, sponsored by the German academic exchange program (Daad). The trip was intended to help the agency decide what programmes could be underwritten with the funding it hopes to receive from the German foreign ministry later this month. It followed a visit to Germany by Kabul rector Mohammad Akbar Popal.

Professor Popal said the university, founded in 1923, was partly destroyed by years of conflict and, since 1993, had been operating only on an irregular basis. "We need practically everything, from staff, grants, books and computers to toilets," he said.

Christa Klaus, director of Daad's South and Southeast Asia programmes, said: "What we can't do is rehabilitation: water, electricity, tables and chairs." But it could train teachers, get books, and bring in equipment. This summer, Daad hopes to bring academics to Germany for intensive courses in updated teaching and research techniques. There are also plans to send German professors to Afghanistan to teach the teachers.

Universities in Cologne, Bochum and Bonn ran a partnership with the University of Kabul until the political situation deteriorated in the mid-1970s. They are working on rebuilding that partnership. "We all feel a strong obligation to the Afghans," Professor Naumann said.

Pending the availability of funds, the University of Cologne is planning to set up a coordination office in Kabul that will ease the development of new projects.

Other universities, including Leipzig, which as part of East Germany was active in Afghanistan when it was under Communist rule, are interested in doing work there. The real issue is money.

"Funds are scarce," said Manfred Feldsieper, a professor in Cologne's department of economics and social science, and temporary director of Cologne's Afghan projects. "This year, there are emergency funds. But our project is not a thing you can do for a few months and finish. It's a long-term project."

The university has already benefited from Unesco's emergency funds. Martin Hadlow, team leader in Unesco's Kabul office, said even small efforts were welcomed. "We paid for exams to be held. We paid for the paper and for the professors to go around and hold exams."

Unesco is working on projects ranging from a book drive to rebuild the library to building the university's first computer centre for its department of journalism. A group of journalism professors has already returned from a training session in Malaysia, where they were introduced to the use of the internet and other skills.

Some 500 women students were among the 10,000 who enrolled at the university when it reopened last month."Some of the female students are coming back from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan. For others, their studies under the Taliban were never completely stopped. Even if the teachers feared for their lives, they always found ways to teach," Professor Popal said.

Unesco and Daad hope to tap into the Afghan diaspora. Professor Popal met many Afghan exiles in Germany who were anxious to return and help out. The International Organisation of Migration has set up a Return of Qualified Afghans programme, which offers financial and other assistance to encourage exiled Afghans to return for three months or more to offer their expertise.

Others are getting involved on their own initiative. Nazir Peroz, who works in the computer science department at Berlin's Technical University, was part of the Daad delegation. "It is a total catastrophe," he said of his homeland. But he is anxious to help rebuild. "What's missing is know-how."

Dr Klaus added: "We must not just think of Kabul. Kandahar, Mazar-E-Sharif, Herat and Jalalabad: the buildings are all standing, but they are all still empty."

Additional reporting by Louise Potterton

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