Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghan War Takes Heavy Toll On Schoolchildren

FILE: An Afghan schoolboy carries his backpack at a school near the site of a Taliban car bomb attack in Kabul in July.
FILE: An Afghan schoolboy carries his backpack at a school near the site of a Taliban car bomb attack in Kabul in July.

Eleven-year-old Nusratullah wanted to serve his country after completing his education. But, like many young victims of the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, a landmine cut the fifth-grader’s life short last week.

His father, Tahir Qalatwal, an imam or prayer leader, says Nusrutallah was among the five schoolchildren killed by a landmine near their school in the remote restive northeastern province of Takhar on November 1.

Qalatwal is now tending to his younger son in a hospital in Kunduz, the capital of a province by the same name that borders Takhar. Eight-year-old Mohibullah was among the four children injured in the explosion that killed his elder brother and four other children.

Qalatwal says the tragedy has devastated their community. Their village, Taheri, in Takhar’s Darqad district is an impoverished rural area now controlled by the Taliban.

“It was a big tragedy for our people. They were in a state of horror,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan of the immediate aftermath of the blast on November 1. “When I got there, I saw two of my sons. One was martyred on the spot and the other lay injured.”

Officials says the ages of the children killed and injured ranged from 8 to 14.

Qalatwal says Nusratullah was talented and ambitious. “He was an intelligent student and even taught other students,” he recalled. “He always told me that he needs to work hard. His dream was to serve his country.”

Rahimullah Qasimi, a local official from the Education Ministry in Darqad, says the killing of schoolchildren in the landmine blast shocked him. “I did not know how to react or what to do,” he said. “What could I do anyway? We are just burning and suffering.”

Nusratullah was among the 300 students at the Abu Zar Ghafari primary school in Taheri. Qasimi says the authorities are adamant about keeping the school open despite the region being controlled by the Taliban.

“All our efforts have been to keep the gates of the school open so that the children of this homeland, who were previously denied an education, are not deprived,” he noted. While the school reopened this week, the tragedy haunts residents of Taheri, which is controlled by the Taliban.

“It had an impact on everyone. The locals, especially parents, are worried. It is obvious that these conditions affect students, teachers, and the parents,” Qasimi said.

Darqad borders Tajikistan. Together with the neighboring district of Yangi Qala, it was overrun by the Taliban in September, but the Afghan forces reclaimed parts of Darqad last month. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says fighting in the two districts displaced some 10,500 civilians in October.

Qasimi said the insurgents placed the landmine some 500 meters away from the school to target Afghan forces who are conducting a cleanup operation in Darqad district.

The Taliban, however, have not commented on the incident and no insurgent group has taken responsibility for the attack.

Nooria Nuzhat, a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry in Kabul, says insecurity is the biggest challenge for education in Afghanistan. “Insecurity causes our students to be killed and injured,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Nuzhat says the Afghan authorities go through a lot of trouble to secure funding from international donors to build schools. “But we see that our schools are being destroyed and the environment for education is rendered unsafe for our children,” she noted.

Nuzhat called on all parties in the conflict to refrain from harming educational institutions.

The incident has garnered widespread condemnation.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called it brutal and inhumane. “The president emphasized that the Taliban could not undermine the will of our people, especially the next generation, to gain knowledge and make progress by carrying out such brutal attacks,” read a statement by his office.

“[I] strongly condemn the wanton disregard for the lives of innocent civilians. The Taliban are the ones preventing peace in Afghanistan,” John Bass, the U.S. ambassador in, said in a tweet.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the “killing and maiming of children during armed conflict is a grave violation.”

UNAMA said it verified 192 attacks on schools and educational personnel last year. In its recent report on October 17, the organization documented 8,239 civilian casualties, which included 2,563 deaths and 5,676 injuries. Women and children still make up a large part of civilian casualties. UNAMA recorded “2,461 child casualties (631 deaths and 1,830 injured), an overall increaseof 11 percent compared to the same period in 2018,” according to its October 17 report.

UNAMA says that during the first three quarters of the current year, the anti-government militants were responsible for 62 percent of all civilian casualties. Its report attributed 46 percent of all civilian casualties to the Taliban, while the Islamic State militants and unidentified anti-government elements were responsible for the rest. The organization says Afghan and international forces were responsible for the remaining 28 percent of casualties.

Qalatwal called on all warring sides to stop hurting ordinary people.

“If it is the government or the Taliban, we want both sides to pay attention to civilians,” he said. “They should treat ordinary people similar to how they treat their parents and children.”