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Afghanistan: Insecurity Prevents Thousands From Attending School

An school in Helmand, Afghanistan.
An school in Helmand, Afghanistan.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Officials in the southern Afghan province of Helmand say insecurity in several northern districts of the vast region has forced them to close most schools.

Mohammad Wali Sarhadi, the head of Helmand's education department, says only 11 out of a total of 114 schools in several northern districts remain open.

This has deprived most of the 11,000 children enrolled in these schools from continuing their education, he says.

"Insecurity is on the rise in the Nawzad, Sangin, Washir, Kajaki, and Musa Qalah districts, which is prompting parents to keep their children home from school," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We are trying hard to reopen these schools with the help of local tribal leaders and clerics."

Officials say that out of 29 schools in Musa Qalah district, only two remain open. Just one among Sangin's 18 districts is open, while two out of 14 schools in Washir are open. In Nawzad, students can go to three out of 24 schools, while three out of 29 schools in Kajaki remain open.

Sarhadi says he is trying to convince local communities and militants to treat the schools as neutral venues essential for educating the new generation.

"Education is not a military tool, an organization, or a political forum, so schools should be treated as a neutral space during fighting," he said.

The closure is also feeding another scourge rife among most government services in Afghanistan: corruption.

An investigation by Radio Free Afghanistan revealed that while some of the schools have remained closed for up to eight months, they were still being provided with supplies such as books and stationary, most of which was then sold on the black market.

Sarhadi, who was appointed this week, has already stopped paying the teachers at closed schools. He plans to send officials from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to investigate the issue.

Helmand's northern districts have seen a dramatic uptick in violence this year. The Taliban have ramped up their attacks against fledgling government forces during the past three months.

During the past decade, northern Helmand has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds against the Taliban. Tens of thousands of NATO troops, stationed in the region from 2006 to the end of last year, failed to rein in Taliban violence, poppy cultivation, and drug trafficking in the region.

Locals say government control in most restive Helmand districts is limited to district centers.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.