Bamiyan, Afghanistan – It’s 6 a.m. and Freshta is sweeping the floor of her makeshift underground school in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province.
Donkeys descend the orange earth hills of its timeless village to fetch water, while cave houses wake to the smell of freshly baked flatbread.
Up to 50 children, mostly girls, attend the informal school – not far from where the historic giant Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban 20 years ago.
The school runs for two hours a day in the morning, providing an opportunity for the impoverished community at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
“The community suggested to gather the children and teach them basic English, Dari, math, geography and the Holy Quran,” Freshta, who gave only one name, told Al Jazeera.
“It grew into something bigger year after year,” said the 22-year-old, who started school aged 12, adding that students, aged 4 to 17 , mainly come from the troglodyte village of 50 families. .
The Taliban return to power
Freshta said she was scared after the Taliban armed group returned to power in August. The last time the Afghan group was in power between 1996 and 2001, it banned women from education and jobs.
“My school was beautiful and colorful, but when the Taliban took over Bamiyan, I was very scared and my friends suggested I take down all the posters and drawings on the walls. They thought I was in danger, especially because I was teaching girls,” Freshta said.
“I put all the colors and all the pens in a plastic bag and threw it in the Patablaghman River,” said Freshta, wearing a colorful scarf.
“They [Taliban fighters] came three times, she added, looking for my neighbor who worked for the local police, but he had already fled. I was scared, but they didn’t seem to know my school.
Freshta is the only teacher and her work is voluntary. She sometimes received donations from occasional visitors from the capital Kabul, but the school survived thanks to her hard work.
“People here have economic problems, they are either farmers or unemployed and school is totally free,” she said. “These families would not be able to afford a private school, and public schools are far away.”
The literacy rate in Bamiyan is low, especially among girls, about 25 percent of whom are literate, according to UN figures.
Freshta is the only university graduate in her cave village, having completed a midwifery course at Bamiyan University a few months ago. Many of her students have said they want to study to become a teacher like her.
Education for women
The urge to give to others stems from the sudden loss of her mother at the age of two, the same age as her little step-brother now, whom she loves to hold and kiss. She has six much younger brothers-in-law but also a 20-year-old sister, who is married.
“[My mother] is always with me,” she said, explaining how much she always loved learning English, how fluent she was, and how she was buoyed up by her farmer father’s sense of humor. 60 years old.
The issue of women’s education has been a particularly contentious issue since the Taliban seized power last August when US-led forces withdrew after 20 years of war and the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani collapsed.
Western governments and aid agencies pressured the Taliban to do more on human rights, girls’ education and women’s empowerment. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the Taliban government, still faces diplomatic isolation.
Last month, Zabihullah Mujahid, government spokesman and deputy culture and information minister, said the education department would open classrooms for all girls and women on New Year’s Eve. Afghan, which starts on March 21.
Asked by Al Jazeera for more details, Mujahid spoke of the central role of “Islamic principles” in shaping the future of girls’ education.
“Islamic principles have a more technical aspect in this regard. [Women] should be physically and mentally safe while studying. Transport issues must also be taken into account, as well as financial aspects. [Men and women] should be separated, to unite all girls and women across the Islamic Emirate,” he said via email on January 25.
Addressing a key issue for Western governments in considering the resumption of aid to Afghanistan, Mujahid told Al Jazeera that “all stages of education will resume”. This would be done “according to the capacity and facilities of the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education”, he added.
Doubts remain about the intentions of the Taliban, however, with memories still strong of the severe restrictions imposed on women during their previous stint in power.
Deterioration of the economic situation
The imposition of sanctions and the sudden freeze of international aid, on which Afghanistan has depended for years, have hit hard particularly the people of Bamiyan, many of whom belong to the Hazara minority, who have historically suffered from persecution.
The United Nations has warned that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people are at risk of food insecurity.
The deteriorating economic situation has hit the village hard for the young teacher, who said most people are now unemployed. “That’s been the biggest change here in the last few months,” she said.
Freshta considers getting a job as a midwife as her father struggles to make ends meet. She also often sells self-embroidered handkerchiefs in the local bazaar to earn extra income.
Traders in Bamiyan – one of the coldest and poorest provinces – have reported plummeting sales and many young men say there are no jobs.
Local authorities have followed Taliban national leadership with regard to the school and have so far turned a blind eye to realities such as Freshta’s school, which survived in a cave, hidden from the Taliban who were tending more pressing economic problems.
The school also attracted students from other villages, and parents were aware that this was more than a way to fill time.
Aaela (pseudonym) is the mother of a 16-year-old boy who sets off on a bicycle from another village that is part of a unique landscape of snow-capped mountains and earth-colored valleys dotted with archaeological remains dating as far back as the first- the ancient Bakhtria of the last century, when the valley was rich in Buddhist monastic settlements and Buddhist art, as well as fortifications of the later Islamic period.
“I have no more money: I worked as a cleaner for a doctor, but he left. All the rich in Bamiyan are gone, and now there are no jobs and less money,” she said.
Aaela is a widow and has four other older children, all of whom have left for the capital Kabul. “I hope his future will be better, thanks to the school,” she said, referring to her son studying with Freshta.
Before getting up to recite by heart a love poem in the Dari language, one of the girls explained to him the importance of school.
“I want to be a pilot,” Laleh said, sitting in the middle of the packed room.
“Before coming to school, I couldn’t read or present myself in English, now I can and hope to do what I dream of.”
In the classroom, the English lesson is started again. It was the verb “power”: “I can run, I can walk, I can write, I can work,” the class repeated in unison after their teacher.