War-torn campus reopens

April 21, 1995

Kabul University reopened this month but no students and few lecturers were at the formal ceremony in the Afghan capital.

The mood was more optimistic, however, than at the time of the last re-opening in 1994 when it shut down a week after a rocket destroyed a faculty building, killing seven lecturers.

Amir Hassanyar, university chancellor, said: "This time we are not on the front line. Although there is a lot of work to be done we do not have to worry about rockets."

Mines may be a problem. There have been some reports that the retreating anti-government factions laid anti-personnel mines in the area.

Dr Hassanyar, who received his doctorate in desert ecology from Colorado State University, highlighted the university's plight. "We have lost everything. Our preliminary estimate is more than $50 million," he said.

The government has no money to rebuild the university, which was plundered during the three years that it was on the frontline. The campus swapped hands between the government and a rebel Shia faction several times. Most of the buildings are battle scarred - for example the faculty of agriculture has lost its roof.

The university staff spent the 14 days before the re-opening repairing and reshelving books. Only books remain, as the illiterate mujehadeen had no use for them. "We need running water, we need generators, we need an electrical system, we need 5,000 benches and we need computers," Dr Hassanyar said at the opening ceremony.

The destruction of the university library was described as a "huge cultural loss". Before the conflict it had been the best academic library across ten countries. "The library was a rich source of research material which scholars from Iran, Pakistan and India used to come to study," Dr Hassanyar commented. The ceremony was poorly attended: there were no students and only a few lecturers. Fifteen years of conflict has created a brain drain in which many of the educated elite fled rather than fall victim to successive regimes - first the communists and more recently the Islamic fundamentalists.

The chancellor claims that fewer than 20 per cent of the teaching staff are still in Kabul. Thousands of students have had to drop out. "We used to have 11,000 students on campus before the fighting started; so far 1,200 have enrolled," Dr Hassanyar said.

One of the university's former academics, President Burhanuddin Rabbani returned for the first time in nearly 20 years. Before leaving the university in the 1970s to lead a group of mujehadeen against the Communist regime, the president, who studied in Cairo, was a professor in theology. He stressed his government's commitment to education, saying: "We have a large programme for the university and we want to help but we are short of money".

The government has been eager to open secondary and primary schools, which have also been closed for the past three years. Unlike the university, which was on the frontline, many schools now opening had become home to thousands of families whose houses were destroyed in the conflict.

A month ago the opposition factions were pushed 30 kilometres outside the city, beyond rocket range. The attempt to normalise life in the capital is an effort to win the support of the population as well as to impress the United Nations with the government's reconstruction efforts. The continuous conflict has left many families dispossessed and desperate for any solution.

The recent meteoric rise of the Taliban, the so-called student militia, in the south illustrated the desperation of normal Afghanis to find a solution. Despite the Taliban's fundamentalist message (they espouse amputation for criminals and oppose all female education) they enjoyed popular support in the areas that fell under their control. Once opposed on the outskirts of Kabul, the Taliban proved to be a paper tiger, fleeing without a fight.

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