| ||Students and Teachers Are Innocent|
By Ajmal Samadi
Kabul – There is a common consensus that armed violence will increase across Afghanistan in the summer months, most probably into unprecedented levels since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Summers have consistently witnessed the peak of insurgency-related violence over the past seven years as insurgent fighters find the weather and the geography suitable to launch hit-and-run attacks, raid and terrorize villages, perpetuate suicide and roadside explosions, and create a situation of widespread insecurity.
This summer in addition to an anticipated traditional rise in the levels of violence there are at least two extra motives for the insurgents to show off their unbridled power. The insurgents have clearly vowed they will disrupt the elections process through, but not limited to, armed attacks on electoral staff, offices and the wider voters. The second motive is the arrival of thousands of additional US forces as part of President Barrack Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan.
Suicide attacks, the use of improvised explosive devices, stand-off attacks, beheadings and sheer terror are the tools the insurgents have widely used in the past several years and there are vivid signs they will continue to use these deadly weapons to achieve their goals.
More and worse than anyone else will civilian Afghans suffer in the rising waves of violence, as they have over the past several years. Whilst the chaotic insecurity impedes direct access to conflict-affected areas for independent assessment and reporting purposes, the information received and processed by Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) – a Kabul-based independent rights watchdog – show at least 1,114 noncombatants lost their lives in insurgency and counterinsurgency military activities from January to the end of June 2009. The conflict has also displaced thousands of civilian people from their homes and villages, deprived many from essential services, damaged sources of livelihoods and has enhanced a widespread sense of insecurity and anarchy.
Amid this bleak outlook there are indications that the elections process could put noncombatants, particularly children, at greater risks.
Despite oppositions from several international aid agencies the Afghan government has approved plans to use thousands of schools across the country as polling and vote counting stations in the simultaneous presidential and provincial council elections scheduled for 20th August 2009.
The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) has vehemently repudiated concerns that the voting process could endanger students and teachers.
However, because Afghan and international security forces will be involved in the protection of voting centers and also because the election is a strong political process, which is backed by the government and its international backers, insurgent attackers may not distinguish schools from other voting centers.
The insurgents have repeatedly breached international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions and other Afghan and Islamic laws through their deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilian people and civilian locations. Insurgent leaders, through their purported spokesmen and other propaganda means, have vowed to disrupt the elections process and discredit the government and its foreign supporters.
Anti-education attacks and propaganda have increased significantly in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2008. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 28 schools were set on fire, 40 were blown up, 56 were attacked and 51 received threats and intimidations from January to June 2009. At least 60 students and teachers were killed and 204 were wounded in security incidents in the same period. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education (MoE) confirmed at least 405 schools remain closed due to security concerns in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Urozgan, Paktia, Logar, Ghazni, Farah, Khost, Paktika and Badghis provinces and more than two million school-age children, most of them girls, have been deprived from education because of insecurity, lack of schools and other social restrictions.
Most of the reported attacks on schools took place in the volatile south and southeast of the country but the anti-education terror campaign has stretched out to almost all parts of the country. Students, particularly girls, have been intimidated verbally and on telephone, warned through parents, gassed and food-poisoned in different parts of the country including in the capital Kabul and in the northern Parwan Province.
It is believed the construction of schools and the distribution of stationary and gifts by international military actors to students have provoked and exacerbated local misperceptions. The use of schools and schoolchildren by some Afghan government officials in state ceremonies and welcoming parties – to sing or wave flags – have sometimes conveyed wrong messages to the insurgents about the impartiality of schools and school employees. On 6 November 2007 a suicide attack and indiscriminate shootouts in Baghlan Province killed 18 students who were brought to welcome a group of visiting high-profile parliamentarians.
Whilst the insurgents have attacked schools and have intimidated students and school employees mostly on ideological grounds, the use of educational facilities in the elections process can exacerbate the insurgents’ misunderstandings and add fuel to their animosity against the education. Pro-insurgent elements have circulated warning notes at schools in several insecure provinces in which locals have been threatened not to support the elections process. There are mounting legitimate concerns that on the polling day, 20 August, and during subsequent vote counting, Afghan security forces will establish temporary military trenches in some of the schools in order to protect the process. International military forces are also believed to be widely involved in the elections security procedures. This will have both immediate and long-term implications for the safety and security of students and teachers and can also undermine perceptions of schools as neutral, impartial and non-military facilities.
Being extremely vulnerable to the impacts of armed conflicts, Afghan children have already been suffering the brunt of casualties and other harms of the war. Data received and processed by ARM show at least 242 children were killed in the conflict between 1 January to 30 June 2009. The single deadliest incident which killed over 30 minors happened on 4-5 May in Farah Province when U.S. forces bombed a village in the Bala Bolok District. The second most fatal incident occurred on 9 July in the central Logar Province when up to 16 children were killed in a truck explosion which was reportedly perpetuated by the insurgents.
Child victims of the conflict are often ignored and deprived from the ad hoc and symbolic acts of protection, sympathy and support by US forces and the Afghan government. Apart from some modest sympathy/condolence payments given to the victim families of the 4-5 May incident, U.S. forces and the government have provided no assistance or support to the children who lost their parents, were injured or displaced from their homes in the same incident.
On the other side, the Taliban have not only failed to respect the safety and security of children in their asymmetric fighting tactics but have deliberately used children as suicide attackers, human shields in military operations and foot soldiers.
It is unlikely the IEC will overhaul plans for the use of schools as voting centers in the upcoming elections in order to prevent security risks for students and school employees.
However, the IEC, the government, the UN and other actors can undertake a number of steps which can help mitigate and minimize the security impacts of the elections process on education.
Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) recommends the following measures in order to mitigate possible elections-related harms to schools, students and teachers:
• Immediately consider the use of substitute locations (for example mosques) for schools as voting centers, particularly in insecure southern provinces;
• Prevent the establishment of military stations/trenches inside and in the vicinity of schools and reduce the number of uniformed and armed Afghan security forces during polling and counting;
• Reduce the presence and patrolling of international military forces inside and near the schools;
• Prevent all signs of a school’s attachment to the elections process such as posters, banners etc;
• High profile candidates and voters should be encouraged to vote in other-than-schools voting stations;
• Communities must be encouraged and supported to stay vigilant for students’ protection in the immediate post-elections period;
On top of these and other measures the UN, Organization of The Islamic Conference and other credible Afghan and international actors must call on the insurgents to respect the neutral, apolitical and non-military status of all educational facilities and to avoid attacking students, education employees and educational centers. The insurgents must be reminded vigorously that their attacks on students and schools stand against Islamic, international and Afghan laws and will be considered as acts of crimes of war and crimes against humanity for which they will be held responsible.
Ajmal Samadi is Afghanistan Rights Monitor's director. He could be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org