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It is my wish that there will be a new battle in Afghanistan - the battle of the pen.

In April Marnie Smith travelled to Pakistan where she discovered Afghanistan's refugee communities finding hope for peace through education.

Though they echo with the longings of the educated and wistful NGO worker, and are reminiscent of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 19th century “The Pen is mightier than the sword” speech, the title of this article represents the heartfelt wish of the Afghan refugee Jamila Abassy.

Jamila has just opened her second primary school in the Pakistan refugee camp where Hamid Karzais [leader of Afghanistans provisional council] - father was captured and killed by the Taliban in 1999.

Jamila, her husband and children took refuge in the Quetta satellite town eight years ago. Four years later, disheartened by the sight of children “roaming around wasting their time” she set up Syed Jamaluddin Afghani Primary School, and this year, Maryam Primary School. Few of the hundreds of pupils can afford the 65p monthly fee, but Jamila turns no-one away.

I met Jamila in April when I travelled to see the work of the newly formed Afghan Educational Trust. The aim of the trust is to fund female students to whom the Taliban denied education, rebuild schools in Afghanistan and see the students through to higher education at universities all over the world. The trusts academic liaison officer Nick Phillis summed it up when he said: “Education is the only vision to have for the survival of Afghanistan. It is the one thing that can unite these people and bring understanding.”

Education, peace and return

We arrived at Maryam on a Friday, the Islamic day of rest. However, the pupils match Jamila's determination to do what must be done - none of them are absent and their parents have gathered to meet us.

Every Afghan I spoke to wants three things; to return to Afghanistan, to have peace in Afghanistan, and education, citing the last as a prerequisite to the former two. At Jamilas school I met Ali Raza Habibi, in his early twenties. Ali teaches at Imam Mehdi Primary School and the Irshad (meaning guidance) Cultural Society; he'd heard we were coming and wanted to ask for help for his students.

Ali explains that although many of the students cannot pay, he teaches because his people “yearn for enlightenment.” It is a labour of love and as if I needed proof, Ali's monthly salary of £6.50 is less than half the price of a family of six' monthly supply of grain. Considering the struggle to find the second meal of the day, I wondered at the earnest pursuit of education.

Even more unexpected is the spirit of the children who say they want to go to school so they can grow up to help their country and serve their people. If you ask them if they would like to make their lives in Pakistan, they look perplexed and answer that they are proud to be Afghani, though many of them have never lived in their own country. The children search piles of waste in the prospect of finding anything they can sell to fund their education. One teenager attends college during the day, working nights to give his siblings schooling. His mother was one of the 70% of female university lecturers that the Taliban forced from work.

Seeking knowledge

Qasem Ulfat, the deputy officer of the Afghan Teachers Association told me he was compelled to leave Afghanistan because: “The Taliban didn't want anyone there who would question their authority.” I asked him what he thought of the Bush/Musharref idea that moderate Taliban could form part of the Afghan government. He looked at me incredulously and said it wasnt possible, that they weren't “moderate people.”

I asked Jamila about the Taliban, whose supporters have intimidated her for having co-educational classrooms and who would be foolish to speak of them with anything other than mere disdain. “I do not recognise them as Taleb,” she said. “The word means 'seeker of knowledge' - my students are more Taleb than they are.

Jamila says that while she strongly condemns those who were behind 11 September and regrets the death of thousands of innocent people, the incident brought liberation in Afghanistan: “For that one positive outcome I am grateful.”

When she first arrived in Pakistan Jamila wrote 220 verses expressing the plight of the Afghan people, then, she says she decided to forgive and forget: “I see a ray of peaceful light and hope in Afghanistan,” she says.

One nation

I dont know how lasting peace can be achieved in Afghanistan but I find inspiration in the words of Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani.*

”The problem lies in the widespread interpretation of the Islamic faith, not in the Afghani landscape and its people. Bombs cannot kill ideas. Militant Islam cannot be defeated militarily. The Muslim multitudes are hungry, unread, directionless and armed. Muslim immigrations are countless and conversions to Islam are at their peak. The Muslim world can no longer be fought, it must be transformed and just as this crisis took decades to create, it will now take patience, wisdom and vision to defuse it.”

It was a revelation to find that in the face of its landlocked and exploited history, Afghanistan has a people with unifying vision. But with those people scattered and its infrastructure torn, Afghanistan could disappear under the rubble. I'm convinced that would be a tragedy, the one nation we should never lose sight of is determination

* Note: New Internationalist 342, Jan-Feb 2002.
Afghan Educational Trust, Dr Mo Afzal, King's School, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2ES, Britain (+44 1227 595693; email: ma@kings-school.co.uk).

Marnie Smith is a freelance journalist.