Shattered Afghan university struggles to recover

KABUL - Kabul University proudly unveiled its new computer centre this year, complete with three donated PCs and a printer.

There are another four or five computers scattered about the campus, but since there is no electricity elsewhere students trek down the darkened halls to the one small room with lights.

Kabul University was once one of the best universities in the region, at the forefront of the modernisation transforming Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s -- and fuelling the still unresolved battle between secular and Islamic views of the world.

Today it is struggling to rebuild, with many buildings still shattered, especially from fighting in the early 1990s when it was caught between competing warlords.

Electricity is almost non-existent, lighting fixtures have been ripped from the walls, water bubbles up from blocked pipes and many books from the library were looted for sale or simply to burn for heat. Professors receive a maximum of $32 a month.

"The equipment, the books and the computers are not enough," said Mohammad Alam Hamdard, the 32-year-old academic dean of the Kabul Medical Institute that is the largest of 14 faculties. "The laboratories -- all the laboratories -- are destroyed, there is not even a microscope."

But Hamdard is making headway.

In an otherwise unusable building, one small section sports new green and white paint; Loma Linda University of California is opening a distance learning centre to provide medical information for staff and students.

The university -- a Seventh Day Adventist Christian institute focused on medicine and headed by a woman -- is in the process of re-establishing decades-old ties to Afghanistan.

But rebuilding links that existed before the Soviet invasion of 1979 plunged the country into war will not be easy. Loma Linda University plans to send staff on rotation but living is hard in a city where the Taliban rulers confine people to their homes after 9 p.m.


And the Taliban movement's view of women's education is a hard one to swallow for any Western institute based on equal access for both sexes.

Officially, the staunchly Islamic Taliban say they favour education of women but cannot allow it until separate rooms, staff and transportation are provided, preferably by foreign donors. The result, with the exception of teaching in homes, is a lack of public education for half the population of Afghanistan.

Enrolment at Kabul University, which was once co-educational, has fallen from 9,000 a quarter century ago to possibly 6,500 today -- some university staff said it is at most 5,000. All are male, sporting the beards demanded by the Taliban.

"Of course we don't have females studying at the university so that is why the number of students is lower," Maulawi Pir Rohani, the chancellor installed after the Taliban conquest in 1996, told Reuters.

"We want to observe Islamic laws, Afghan culture. We want them to be (covered) in a burqa (veil) and then study. We are eager to find the means and facilities," he said. "Co-education is not legal in Islam."

There are efforts to resume some teaching of women at the university, but those anxious to see it prefer to move quietly rather than provoke interference by the religious police.


The only acknowledged disruption of the curriculum by the new rulers has been to ban teaching music, sculpture and drawing of animate objects -- the same Islamic interpretation that prompted the Taliban order to demolish the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan that had been the country's best known historic treasure.

"Every government has to adjust its policy," said a man working in the university library. "Currently there are no books opposing the policy or religion. Certainly books that are contrary to Islam should be removed."

But on the shelves, perhaps overlooked by staff trying to reassemble the collection, are volumes with un-Taliban sounding titles like Folksingers and Folksongs in America.

Books on Afghanistan include volumes praising an artistic heritage that has been systematically obliterated since February under the edict of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The chancellor, whose own family is in Pakistan, says he wants to resume a system where faculties were supported by foreign universities. But the bearded official, who believes he is about 50 years old, made clear he does not want a return to the days when Western ideas were given free reign on the campus.

"In the 1970s there were foreign teachers and students studying and teaching in Kabul University. They enjoyed a good system of laboratories, teaching materials and so on," he said in an office that had no lights and was heated by a wood stove.

"But they were far from Afghanistan's tradition, culture and you can see a big gap between the system of teaching then and now," he said. "Now, thank God, we are much better."

"Of course Kabul University is in bad shape. But we are following what we need for our society," he said, his turbanned head illuminated by light from the window. "We want to maintain our religion, our tradition, our culture. And that's the main thing for us."

Rohani, a veteran of 14 years of war against Soviet invaders and then other Afghans, said that after joining in the Taliban's capture of Kabul he was rewarded with the post of chancellor. But he seems restless while the Taliban are still fighting to eliminate their last opponents in the north.

"I am a combatant," he said. "I wish to fight but the authorities say 'No, you head the university, you teach at the university."'

Outside, his official university car was waiting; the standard double-cabbed pickup with tinted windows favoured by Taliban fighters.

21:32 04-02-01

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