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Nearly 1.5 Million Afghan Children Return to School

Children in Afghanistan returned to school Saturday. For many of them, especially girls, it was their first opportunity for formal education.

In the courtyard of the Amani High School in downtown Kabul, 15-year-old Mina Homma waits expectantly for a sound she thought she might never hear.

The clang of a brass bell, rung Saturday by interim government chairman Hamid Karzai, marked the return to school for about 1.5 million Afghan children, who had been deprived of the chance of formal education by years of war and civil strife.

An estimated 3,000 schools opened their doors Saturday - though many have no doors, nor do they have windows, desks, or books. For many students, a cheap plastic ballpoint pen is a highly valued possession.

Several nations, including Japan, the United States, Italy, and Norway, are contributing to the educational rebuilding efforts. The United States, through the Agency for International Development, is funding the editing and printing of nearly 10 million textbooks, along with teachers' kits.

Hundreds of people: diplomats, government officials, teachers, students, and journalists - crammed into the school gymnasium to celebrate the event.

For girls, it was an especially significant moment. During the five years of Taleban rule, girls were forbidden to attend school in most places. Mina Homma was 10-years-old when she was banned from school.

"I am feeling very happy and I am feeling very nice. Now, I think that I am really a human being, because that five years, which have gone, was a very dark time for us, and for our country, for the development of our country, for everything," she says.

Interim government chairman Karzai has made getting the education system restarted a top priority. At Saturday's ceremony, he choked up twice, and struggled to control his emotions, as he praised Afghan children as beautiful, bright, and unique in the world and said he wanted the children to know that.

Mr. Karzai said that education for children will change Afghanistan from a country that must beg for international help to one that has respect and can help other nations.

But, after all the speeches, the day was best summed up in a song from a group of Afghan schoolgirls.

"The pride and dignity of human beings is knowledge and education," they sang; "knowledge is a garden, which is fresh and fruitful and lasts forever; bad days are over and happiness has come to Afghans."