In the spring of 2002, I went to to write about the refugees returning home from Pakistan over the Khyber Pass after years of exile since the civil wars of the 80s and 90s. In the ruins of west Kabul I came across a teacher, who was with his 38 pupils, their parents and the looms on which they made carpets. They had all travelled back with him in the brightly painted buses laid on by the UN. His name was and he was a Hazara, from the third-largest of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and unlike the other two, the Pashtun and the Tajik, Shia rather than Sunni. With money raised largely in the UK, Aziz found a derelict house, restored its rooms and set to work. It was the start of a remarkable experiment.
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Today, – the word means wisdom, enlightenment in Farsi – stretches around most of a block. It has 3,400 pupils, just under half of them girls, a radio station and an auditorium seating 1,500. Under Aziz’s determined eye, students debate philosophy and ethics, learn music, art and foreign languages, and are urged to question everything around them. A student parliament and council self-govern much of day-to-day life. For the boys, the Socratic debates have proved exciting; for the girls, told for the first time in their lives to think for themselves and consider nothing sacred, it is nothing less than revolutionary.
Aziz’s ambitions for his pupils are boundless. Of the 751 who have graduated in recent years, 200 have studied abroad. Thirty-six are currently in universities in the US, Japan, China, South Korea, Germany or Sweden. Six of the girls at American universities last year come from families where the women were veiled and subservient. It is the girls in particular – bold, assertive, ambitious – who stand out. At the opening ceremony for the auditorium, the students sang: “I am neither humiliated, nor poor, nor a captive / I voice wisdom and knowledge.” A sense of local pride is palpable.
The world has become accustomed to almost daily spectacles of violence in . Yet this ignores the progress the country has made since 2001 in promoting democracy, putting in place a free press and building up civil society. Central to this progress has been the surge in education. Marefat school is not alone: government-funded schools have expanded, many more girls are being educated, and private schools and universities are flourishing.
For people looking for justification for the American invasion in 2001, Marefat school has become a symbol of outstanding success. But success of this kind is not always popular, particularly if you are part of a marginalised Shia community in an overwhelmingly Sunni country, and if you are teaching girls to be bold and ambitious in a place that is otherwise clerical and patriarchal. The outspokenness of the girls has not gone unnoticed. With the Taliban active in as much as half of the country, and Islamic State gaining footholds to the east of Kabul, security at Marefat has become stringent.
The violence is getting closer. On 25 August, fighters from an affiliate of Isis , killing 20 people and wounding another 30. This was just the latest in a series of shootings and suicide bombings aimed principally at the Hazara community. It has raised fears of a concerted attempt by Isis and the Taliban to destroy the Shia minority, demonstrate that the national unity government has little control over its territory and attract funds from Wahabi extremists in the Gulf countries. In the first six months of this year, 1,662 civilians died. Among the casualties of the 25 August attack were seven close relatives of one of the school’s trustees.
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President Trump that he would be sending 3,900 more soldiers to add to the 13,000 Nato troops already in Afghanistan. There is talk of the British SAS lending support. It would be an exercise, he said, not in “nation building” but in “killing terrorists”: more support for the struggling Afghan forces, more joint operations and more airstrikes against the insurgents.
But if Marefat and the other civil society successes – a reform of the civil service, encouragement of entrepreneurial ventures – prove anything, it is that Afghanistan needs support for more effective governance.
It is help in nation building – promoting human rights, ensuring judicial impartiality, curbing corruption and challenging exclusionary politics – that could ease the ethnic tensions that are stoking the growing number of attacks.
The terrorist insurgency is indeed frightening and dangerous, but it is only one of many threats. In a country where just under half the population is under 15, investing in education and schools such as Marefat can open a different kind of future. Young Afghans now know what democracy means, and they want more of it.
• Caroline Moorehead is an author