One morning two months ago, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question.
“Are you going to school?”
Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read.
But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed.
Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all.
“My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,” said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.”
In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built here by the Japanese government, it appeared to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to the school each morning. Many of them walk more than 3km from their mud-brick houses up in the hills.
The girls burst through the school’s walled compound, many of them flinging off head-to-toe garments, bounding, cheering and laughing in ways that are inconceivable outside — for girls and women of any age. Mirwais has no regular electricity, no running water, no paved streets. Women are rarely seen, and only then while clad in burqas that make their bodies shapeless and their faces invisible.
And so it was especially chilling on Nov. 12, when three pairs of men on motorcycles began circling the school. One of the teams used a spray bottle, another a squirt gun, another a jar. They hit 11 girls and four teachers in all; six went to the hospital. Shamsia fared the worst.
The attacks appeared to be the work of the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that is battling the government and the American-led coalition. Banning girls from school was one of the most notorious symbols of the Taliban’s rule before they were ousted from power in November 2001.
Building new schools and ensuring that children — and especially girls — attend has been one of the main objectives of the government and the nations that have contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Some of the students at the Mirwais school are
in their late teens and early 20s, attending school for the first time. Yet at the same time, in the guerrilla war that
has unfolded across southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have made schools one of their special targets.
But exactly who was behind the acid attack is a mystery. The Taliban denied any part in it. The police arrested eight men and, shortly after that, the Ministry of Interior released a video showing two men confessing. One of them said he had been paid by an officer with the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency, to carry out the attack.