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Afghan Children Return to School Saturday - 2002-03-22

About one and a half million children in Afghanistan are expected to go back to school Saturday in what the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, is calling the biggest educational effort that has ever taken place anywhere in the world.

Back to school, known in Afghanistan as "Sabak" means the return to learning. And UNICEF says more than 3,000 schools across the country will begin the new term on Saturday.

UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the re-opening of Afghanistan's schools is the first step to rebuilding the country's educational system shattered by years of war and neglect.

"Back to school is not only about children getting back to school, but it is about opening a world of new possibilities for the children of Afghanistan," she said. "It's exciting. It's historic. And it's a building block for the country's future."

UNICEF says it has helped more than 53,000 teachers in Afghanistan's get back to school by providing training and necessary supplies like notebooks and chalkboards. About two-thirds of Afghanistan's teachers are women.

Ms. Belmonte says it has been a logistical challenge to produce and deliver in only two months 7,000 tons of learning materials to children and their teachers in cities and rural areas of Afghanistan.

But she says it was all worth the effort when you see the delight in the children's faces who are now able to attend school without fear.

"In Kabul, there's an 11-year-old girl who could not go to school legally during the Taleban era," she said. "She went to an illegal school, to a home-based school, and she had to walk around with her notebooks in a shopping bag and it would be dangerous for her to be caught. She has just gotten a new school bag and when she received it there was just this moment of wonder because she knows that now it is OK, she can go to school."

UNICEF is anticipating that as many as one million more children could return to school next month as parents see schools back in operation. It says that another one million Afghan children could be joining the school system as their families return from exile.