Unesco to help Afghan rebuild

February 1, 2002

It was a chilly Kabul day. On the gravel outside Kabul University's dormitory for female students, a sea of empty shell casings was scattered at our feet. In front of us, the facade of the once imposing dormitory block was pockmarked with bullet holes. In this part of Kabul few buildings here survived the ravages of years of fighting and urban warfare.

Sharif Fayez, minister of higher education in the interim administration of Afghanistan, brought me to see if Unesco could assist in rehabilitating the partly destroyed building. We agreed that it had been a fine facility and had become a much-needed one.

It will be impossible to repair the building or even make it habitable before the universities re-open on March 22, but a start must be made.

The dormitory lost its windows. Strips of tangled metal dangled from ceilings. Steel reinforcing wire gaped through broken concrete where mortar rounds or artillery duels had done their work. The signs of 50mm cannon fire were everywhere. But, despite the damage, the building was retrievable and could be reconstructed. All it needed was cash - the minister estimated $1 million (£700,000) but engineers told us to double that.

Half a mile away the men's dormitory looked in better shape than the women's. "This is where I stayed when I was at university," Dr Fayez said, as we walked up the front steps to be greeted by administrative and cleaning staff, who still come to work despite the fact that they are tending a dilapidated and unused building.

"This is the students' dining room," said the minister. "Let's have a look at the kitchens." Through the swing-doors stood an industrial-sized mixer. Old bread ovens were side-by-side with giant cauldrons once used to steam rice for hungry students. The steel top of a large boiler had a series of jagged tears made by a rocket, according to our guides. Even kitchens were not immune from the ravages of war.

The damage wreaked on parts of Kabul University's peripheral property was apparent, although the main campus itself was still in relatively good order, but without heating or electricity. War seemed to have passed it by.

The library contained many old books. In the reference section, outmoded encyclopedias stood alongside volumes of the International Who's Who that dated back to the mid-1930s - hardly the texts needed by eager Afghan students in a new century. Unesco has launched a global appeal for used textbooks, in any language, to help replenish the shelves.

The departure of thousands of intellectuals, professors and teachers has had a critical impact on Afghanistan's universities. Fleeing war and appalling living conditions, the Afghan diaspora is spread across the globe. Dr Fayez and Abdul Rasoul Amin, the minister of education, are former Kabul academic staff who have returned to help Afghanistan in its hour of need. Both have appealed to colleagues to join them.

Higher education in Afghan-istan faces enormous difficulties as it struggles to enrol students, revise curricula, print new textbooks and prepare the next generation of young people to make the future a peaceful and bright one. There is not even a standard entrance examination for students. The minister has relatively little basic data. "I don't even know which universities might still be properly functioning," he said.

He said there were no accurate records of how many lecturing staff were still in place, nor how many students wished to enrol.

Re-skilling teaching staff is another challenge. In the journalism faculty, Kazim Ahang said his staff required technical know-how, modern skills and access to technology. "We also need teaching materials, books and training," he said.

Unesco has proposed to fund eight of the faculty's teaching staff to undertake a one-month practical training course overseas.

Martin Hadlow is Unesco's team leader in Kabul.

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