School Where a Ration Bag Is a Fashion Item; Proud Girls Defy War and the Taliban to Learn with Dignity

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IF the Americans were worried that the food parcels they hurled into this desert hadn't reached their target, they need look no further than Class Two of Khojabahuddin School for Girls. Here almost every pupil proudly carries a newhomemade schoolbag: a distinctive yellow plastic sack bearing the Stars and Stripes and the legend 'Food Gift from the United States of America'.

And were the Russians ever to give a second thought to the same desert, which a decade ago became a graveyard for thousands of their men and machines, they might like to meet Habib Bulla. He is building a house for himself and seven other members of his family from the shell of a Soviet tank. It will stand the test of time in this earthquake zone, he reckons, and in addition he can tie his donkey to what remains of the gun turret.

These are just two vignettes of daily life in Afghanistan but, put together, they provide a sharp reminder that whatever propaganda the world superpowers might like to peddle about their warmongering here, the truth is rather more prosaic.

The Afghan people - available to rent but never to buy, as one Northern Alliance commander has so eloquently put it - don't give a stuff about the Great Game being played by proxy in their ancient land. They wish only to wake up tomorrow.

Such is the hardship, the poverty and the disease of this place.

Khojabahuddin is, by Afghan standards, a settlement of some substance. Yet it has no power or running water. That means no sewerage system. There's no postal service or telephone line, so the man with the battery radio is king.

People here survive the harshest of winters in the same frayed clothes and homemade shoes they wear in summer. Their unvarying diet is unleavened bread and rice.

They live in huts made from hardened earth and wash themselves, their animals, their laundry and their possessions in the river.

Yet with its twice-weekly bazaar and motley collection of carpenters, tinkers, bakers, money changers, merchants and tea houses, Khojabahuddin is positively metropolitan compared to the villages beyond, most so isolated they remain nameless and unmapped.

Afghanistan is a country where

Schoolwhere a ration bag is afashion item the modern world is absent. Days begin and end with a kind of ancient simplicity. At dawn children aged four or five drag camel trains carrying firewood and donkeys burdened with water into town so the business of breakfast can begin. At dusk people eat, gossip a little by lantern light and then go to bed.

You might think there is romance in such an uncomplicated life. You would be wrong. Here your skin, hair and clothes are permanently filthy, coated in the desert dust which infects the body with parasites and viruses. Bad water gives everyone chronic gut infections.

In the bazaar, butchery is performed without reference to hygiene. Cooking is confined to a pot and kettle over an open fire. In the winter families scatter straw for extra insulation or sleep in a room above their animals.

The warmth, and the stench, rises.

By tradition, Afghans are a generous and hospitable (if not particularly peaceful) people but this is no place to be a beggar, a cripple, a widow or an orphan and Khojabahuddin has many.

This is a country where more than 300 people a month are killed or maimed by landmines. A quarter of all children die before their fifth birthday. Life expectancy for men and women is just 43-44 years old.

Three quarters of the population are denied access to even the most primitive health care and nine out of 10 people drink unsafe water. …