It is springtime in Afghanistan where Kabul University has been de-mined and is ready to open. Christine Aziz reports
There is very little left of Kabul University. Destroyed and mutilated buildings, empty lecture halls and libraries bereft of books reflect the destruction of the city in which it stands.
The university has been closed since April 1992 when a coalition of resistance groups overthrew Soviet sympathiser, President Najibullah and then turned their guns on each other in some of the fiercest fighting the capital has seen. Much of the city was reduced to rubble.
The university campus was one of the frontlines and took the brunt of the rocket and bomb attacks. Two years later, when political and ethnic alliances shifted, coalition government troops fought off a takeover bid by prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyer.
In the heart of the city, rival groups took up positions on either side of Kabul river. The fighting spread and the university found itself once again in the frontline. Hand-to-hand fighting took place in the dormitories. Most of the faculty buildings were badly damaged - equipment was looted and sold in Pakistan. The campus was heavily mined and littered with unexploded ordnance.
The government decision officially to open the university this month follows months of relative calm and coincides with an announcement to launch a major offensive against the Taliban, a Pashtun-led Islamic fundamentalist faction eager to oust the Kabul regime led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Taliban overlook the campus from hills just eight kilometres away.
The university has always reflected the tragic events that have shaped Afghanistan this century. Founded in 1932 with the faculty of medicine serving as a nucleus it has closed only once before - in 1969 for six months following a student rebellion. Its educational system has always been influenced by whichever foreign power has dominated the country, starting with the French, followed by the Germans and then the British, and more recently the Russians, who occupied the country from 1979 to 1989.
Sixteen years of war have had their impact. Only the bullet-sprayed walls of the engineering faculty building remain standing, surrounded by dismembered carcasses of rusting and mangled equipment. Mujahideen (government mercenaries) patrol the grounds with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. But there are signs of hope. The campus has been de-mined, buildings repaired and windows replaced, 12 drinking wells built, and toilets restored. Students have begun to move into the dormitories even though there is no electricity and no cooking facilities.
The office of university chancellor Amir Hassanyar is reached along corridors filled with pools of water where rain and melted snow has poured through holes in the roof. The order and comfort of the room contrasts with the debris of war. The walls are lined with gold brocade chairs, and Afghan rugs cover the floor. A traditional wood stove burns in the centre with the ubiquitous kettle of tea warming ready for visitors. Dr Hassanyar, a diminutive man with a monumental task, sits behind a large desk.
"Before the Russians came, Kabul University was one of the top ten universities in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East according to Unesco standards. It was the centre of the intellectual movement in Afghanistan," Dr Hassanyar said.
He was appointed chancellor three years ago and moved into his office last year. "There was nothing here. I had to sit on the concrete floor and work. We opened informally in May last year and I was expecting only about 400 students - but 7,000 turned up," he said. An ecologist and agriculturist, Dr Hassanyar has degrees from Kabul University, the American University in the Lebanon and New York University.
The Rabbani government has allocated $800 million to help launch the university, while Iran, a close ally of the regime, has donated 2,000 textbooks and several hundred chairs. Dr Hassanyar said he would not dare to estimate how much is needed to rebuild and re-equip the university. "It's millions. There have been some private donations but we cannot go forward without renewals of former affiliations with international universities but because of our present political situation everyone is promising but not delivering."
He hints delicately at other problems. The majority of affiliations used to be with United States universities, including Nebraska, Wyoming and Columbia, and it is likely that Dr Hassanyar will want to continue the trend, even though the Rabbani government is critical of US policy in the region.
For Dr Hassanyar the worst period ideologically in the university's history was during the Russian occupation. "All academic freedom went. There were a lot of ideological courses on Marxism and Leninism and sociology, philosophy and state law took precedence. About 95 communist professors were appointed to the university and students were often enrolled on party status rather than on qualification. The standard of education came down and lot of highly qualified professors left the country.
"We have lost two generations and it is this generation who will give Afghanistan a future," he said. In those terms, Kabul University is one of the country's main hopes. The country's two other chief universities, in Kandahar and Herat have been shut down by the Taliban, who have also stopped the education of girls and women.
Before the Russian occupation Kabul had 11,000 students of whom over 60 per cent were women. Dr Hassanyar, in agreement with Rabbani's Islamic government, is committed to restoring this balance, although a new women-only university, the Dawat-el-Jehad, starts this year.
Over 16,000 students sat the university entrance exam in February, following a radio announcement by the ministry of higher education inviting interested students to answer a paper of 250 questions - mainly science based. Those with 100 per cent gain a university place.
Approximately 5,000 new students are expected to start university this academic year - which starts in spring.
Away from the campus on a mortar-scarred housing estate built by the Russians, Mohammed Javed, 20, is helping the International Committee of the Red Cross to distribute food to a group of widows. He has just taken the entrance examination and is confident that he will be able to study agriculture.
"When the university closed a lot of students helped the people, either in hospitals or in the streets. Some joined the fighting," Javed said. His father was injured in an accident a year ago and he supports the entire family of nine adults living in two rooms on 150,000 Afghans (Pounds 20) a month which he receives from the ICRC. "My brother earns money but he stashes it away to go abroad. He doesn't help us. If I don't get this money then we go hungry."
The obstacles facing Javed and his fellow students, seem insurmountable; no money, no books, no electricity, family responsibilities, rocket attacks, empty lecture rooms, worn out lecturers. The fact that they wish to continue is a testimony to their courage and fearless optimism. "The best way to bring peace in Afghanistan is to give the opportunity of education to young people," Javed said.