Two schools in Helmand that were refurbished using British aid money are now being used as bases for the Afghan army, the Guardian has learned.
In another sign that intensified fighting between the resurgent Taliban and government forces threatens to reverse some of the most significant gains of the past 15 years, the Helmand schools are now occupied by Afghan national army soldiers.
Pupils still attend one of the schools, in Sayedabad, Nad Ali district, which received about £100,000 from the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Soldiers have built a rudimentary watchtower on the roof and walk heavily armed through the schoolyard.
The other school, in Chahe Anjir, also in Nad Ali, was renovated by the British government for £450,000. It was abandoned six months ago and turned into an outpost for the army.
Civilian casualties are , and when schools become part of the battleground, children risk being caught in the crossfire. Every fourth civilian injured or killed in the conflict is a child. In Helmand, where a majority of British soldiers died, the frontline now slices through areas that only months ago were relatively peaceful.
Soldiers in Sayedabad were nonchalant about their presence in the school, which is the only one in Helmand to allow mixed-gender classes beyond age nine, according to the provincial education department. Though many families have fled the village, hundreds of children were still in school when the Guardian visited, about half of them girls.
“Why would the students be afraid?” said Farhad, an army commander who goes by one name. “Afghan children are not scared.” Inside, pupils agreed they were not afraid. “No way!” one class shouted with one voice, before arguing whether boys or girls were the bravest.
“They have got used to it,” said Sakina, the teacher. “But there is no doubt they are afraid. The Taliban probably knows the army is here, and they might fire rockets.” On more than one occasion, she said, gunfire had sent her students scrambling for cover under tables.
In 2015, the UN documented military use of 35 schools, compared with 12 the year before, said Danielle Bell, human rights director with the UN in , which will release a report on schools and medical facilities at risk next week. In 2015, 139,000 students were affected by school closures due to conflict, Bell said.
The actual numbers are almost certainly higher due to the UN’s lack of access to volatile areas. For instance, the two Helmand schools discovered by the Guardian do not figure in the UN report.
Ahmad Shuja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, urged the Afghan government to protect its schools and live up to the ratified last year. “Failing to protect schools will risk setting back what Afghanistan’s international donors justifiably consider to be one of their landmark achievements in Afghanistan – the dramatically increased access to education for Afghan boys and girls,” Shuja said.
In addition to endangering children, he said fighting “damages Afghanistan’s already lacking education infrastructure at a time when funds to rebuild and expand schools are decreasing.”
The office of the president, Ashraf Ghani, did not respond to requests for a comment. A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office (FCO said: “We are concerned about reports of schools in Helmand being used as military bases.
“We expect the Afghan government to do its utmost to ensure that any schools being used for military efforts are returned to their original purpose when they are considered safe to do so. The spokesperson added that responsibility for the violence ultimately lay with the insurgents.
In the other school renovated with British support, in Chahe Anjir, there are no more children. When the Guardian visited, Taliban fighters had draped large pieces of black cloth across the gravel road about 100 metres away to allow them to cross undetected. Within a stone’s throw of the school building, white Taliban flags had been planted in the fields.
Inside the classrooms, which appeared to have been stripped of desks, chairs and most other essential school equipment, a company of 20 soldiers had stacked ammunition cases underneath blackboards and spread out sleeping bags on bare concrete floors.
The inside wall, pockmarked with fist-sized holes, showed signs of a recent battle when the army had to recapture the school from the Taliban.
The company commander, Haji Mahboub, acknowledged that fighting in the school harmed children in the area, and said he hoped to find an alternative. But the school was already all but destroyed. Helmand’s director of education, Abdul Matin Jaffar, said the students had moved to another school east of the Helmand river.
Soldiers did not seem to have second thoughts about fighting in the school. “Do you want us to stand out on the road?” Ruhollah Amini, 26, said in between volleys of crackling gunfire from a fellow soldier shooting erratically, machine gun over his head.
In Sayedabad, where students were still in class, officials claimed their presence was intended not to harm but to defend the school.
“If there was no army base on the school, the Taliban might burn the school down,” said Gholam Sakhi, commander of the Afghan local police in Sayedabad. He also hinted at another possible reason for the school seizure: “It’s the highest building in the village.”