A group of girls returning home from school in Afghanistan’s Logar province recently did not for a moment expect what lay ahead.
As they walked down a dirt track, insurgents sprang out of the parched farms and began firing on them.
Some of them fled into the farm, but two girls, one aged 13, the other 10, were killed in the ambush. Three of their friends were wounded.
This kind of attack on schoolchildren, the first incident of its kind in Afghanistan, highlights how the insurgents are trying to disrupt education in the war-ravaged nation.
A surge in violence over the past year threatens to neutralise the gains made by the country in sending its children back to school after the fall of the Taleban.
In the past 13 months, 226 schools, many run from tents, have been burnt down by the insurgents. A total of 110 teachers and students have been killed in incidents of indirect violence and another 52 wounded, officials say.
The Taleban also shut down 381 schools, the majority of them in provinces like Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan where they have a formidable presence.
This is depressing news when you consider that more than six million Afghan children have returned to schools in the past six years – a sevenfold increase from the 900,000 children, all of them boys, who were going to school during the Taleban rule.
The number of teachers has also leapt from a paltry 21,000 to 143,000 during the same period. The government says it is hiring 10,000 teachers this year alone.
Now the attack on the schoolchildren has sent shock waves through the government.
“I am devastated. I am very worried that such incidents will make parents very scared to send their children to school,” says Afghan Education Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar.
The insurgents have in the past burnt down schools in the night, and fired rockets to destroy some. They have been distributing “night letters” asking the Afghans to stop working for the government and going to schools.
It is not difficult to destroy schools in Afghanistan – only 40% of the 8,500 schools in the country are run out of buildings. The rest operate out of tents or are simply run under trees.
Officials worry that the Taleban may have begun targeting school children because of the “relative success” of a programme to protect schools.
Over the past eight months, the government has spent $500,000 launching what it calls a “special school protection programme” – which works by groups of parents and local villagers keeping a watch on the schools, sometimes keeping licensed guns.
Some 1,000 schools have been covered under the programme, and officials say the protection scheme is yielding results – 35 of the 381 schools shut down by the Taleban have been reopened.
“This has worked quite a bit. When the insurgents see that the local community is protecting the school, they usually don’t challenge,” says Mr Atmar.
But the success of this programme could be the reason why the insurgents have now begun targeting schoolchildren as they find it difficult to attack schools guarded by local people.
The only hope may be the fact that there is finally a high premium on education in Afghanistan – and most parents don’t want to take their children out of the schools because of the violence, yet.
“When I went to the school in Logar to meet parents after the recent attack, the first thing that they told me was: ‘Please do not close the school down. We will give your more ideas for the protection of the school,'” says Mr Atmar.
As it is there are enough problems – 80% of the teachers are untrained, and at $60 a month, an Afghan teacher’s salary is among the lowest in the world. A little over 6% of the government’s non-defence budget is spent on education.
Analysts are critical of how little the government continues to spend on education; neighbouring Tajikistan, for example, spends three times more on teaching its children.
Now faced with insurgent attacks on children, the government reckons it would need a quarter of the country’s existing 60,000-strong policemen to guard the schools alone. That is not possible, say officials.
Ultimately, the government will need to ramp up security and pour money into education to spread learning in the country.
Otherwise, a time may soon arrive when parents begin to pull children out of schools, fearing for their lives.
“How much can villagers do in fighting armed insurgents? It is ultimately the government’s responsibility to secure its children,” says a school teacher.
If insecurity wrecks the dreams of children to get educated, it will be a significant setback for Afghanistan in its efforts to make a new beginning.