Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Knowledge and Courage

This is what we need more of.
"Atefa's dream might have ended on a bright winter morning 13 months ago.

The hazel-eyed 8-year-old still has a ways to go before she becomes a surgeon, which she confidently proclaims as her life's goal. Yet graduating from grade school is one important step – and on Feb. 10, 2006, that seemed almost impossible. Overnight, the Medrawer Girls School was burned to a charred husk by terrorists determined to prevent local girls from reading textbooks and learning geometry.


Even then, however, the village elders were beginning to formulate a decision that would change the lives of Atefa and – some would say – girls across Afghanistan. Later that day, they decided to take protection of the school into their own hands, cobbling together a corps of village volunteers that has stood watch over the now-rebuilt school every night since, sometimes armed only with spare farm tools and ancient swords passed down as family heirlooms.

There hasn't been an attack since."

Is education important?
""Education has a special importance in Afghanistan, and that is what our enemies know," says Mohammad Patman, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education.


"For 30 years, people said to the uneducated that [schools] are something from foreigners, so burn them," says Mr. Patman. Now, villages are coming to the government and asking it to establish girls' schools, he says. "The enthusiasm we see is incredible."

For a nation often conflicted about the trappings of modernity, the eagerness of rural villages like Medrawer to patrol their own schools is telling. It suggests that, after years of ambivalence or even hostility, Afghans have come to recognize the importance of education – and they are willing to defend it, even in the wee hours of the morning with ax in hand.

Terrorists "are coming here and misusing the illiteracy of my people," says Abdul Qader Damanewal, an elder from a nearby village who sometimes stands guard here. "As soon as we are educated, the enemy will not be able to use them."

What would your response to this be?
"Who the enemy was on the night of Feb. 9, 2006, the elders of Medrawer still don't know. Not surprisingly, Mr. Damanewal blames the Taliban for seeking to destroy what they see as an imposition of foreign values.

Medrawer could have been just one more school burned into oblivion. Allah Mohammad says that certainly seemed to be the plan. As the lone government guard on duty that night, the thin young man draped in a long beige shawl recalls the events with manic clarity. He scurries among the eucalyptus to show where some two dozen marauders poured over the wall after nightfall, where he was standing when they shot between his feet in warning, where they bound him hand and foot.

As they began to loot and burn, one put a can of gasoline next to Mr. Mohammad's face. "If you make a noise or try to escape, I will burn you alive," Mohammad recalls him saying.

They stayed for as long as four or five hours, after which Mohammad was able to sneak away for help. The town quickly converged on the school to put out the flames. But the damage was enormous. Photos taken in the aftermath show windows broken, walls seared by the flames, and what were once books scattered across the floor in ankle-deep piles of indistinguishable ash."

Windows broken, books in ashes, school ruined. Most 12 year olds would probably be terrified and not want to return. Not this one:
"This is what Narzia Wafa remembers of her school on that day. "Everything was black with cinders," says the 12-year-old student, a math problem of intersecting angles on the blackboard behind her. "But still I came, and I was not scared."

"If we stopped coming, the enemy would just be encouraged," she adds."

That's the future of Afghanistan. That's what U.S., NATO, and our other Coalition partners are fighting for. But we can only do so much. The people are going to have to step up for themselves. Are they capable?

"When the local elders in Medrawer met to discuss the future of the girls' school, they knew that one underpaid government security guard wasn't enough. Nor could the government of Laghman Province provide police support: The entire province has only 250 police officers and 199 schools.

The solution was clear. "This was our responsibility," says Sayed Omer, another elder. "Who should protect our school if the government is not able?""

Sounds like it to me.
"Sitting in a spare classroom with rows of benches and desks for about 30 girls, she has an open reading textbook before her, bright with pictures. While other girls stand and answer questions at nervous attention, she sits almost casually, her pale eyes fixed and unblinking.

"I'm not scared, because I want to serve my country in the future," she says. "If [children] don't know anything, how will they be able to build this country?""

This is how we're going to win. Behind Achilles, the suicide bombings, the kidnappings, it's everyday courage and hope like this that is going to be the ultimate factor in victory.