Even before the winter wind had scattered the ashes of their village school, the people of this poor hamlet in eastern Afghanistan decided they had to fight back.
On a bitterly cold night last month, suspected Taliban militants set fire to all five “classrooms,” housed in canvas tents donated by a humanitarian agency. It was one of nearly 200 schools across the country burned in the last year by Islamic insurgents.
Four hundred more schools were closed by threats and intimidation, driving more than 130,000 students from their classrooms and dealing a harsh blow to massive international efforts to rebuild an education system ravaged during the years of Taliban rule.
Over the last three months, however, the rate of attacks has fallen dramatically, with fewer than half a dozen schools believed to have been targeted. Education officials attribute the decrease at least in part to a nationwide drive to create local “defense committees” for schools, enlisting the help of tribal elders, Islamic clerics and, in some cases, homegrown militias.
The people of Wach Tangi, which lies about 10 miles north of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, believed their village was too remote and their tent school too rudimentary to attract the notice of any Taliban militants in the area.
The road leading to the village of 1,800 people resembles a dry riverbed: winding, pitted and stone-strewn. So arid and forbidding is the landscape that in the Pashto language, Wach Tangi means “valley without water.”
But on the night of Jan. 6, arsonists took the trouble to make the journey, and methodically set each tent ablaze. Villagers raised the alarm within moments, but it was too late. The classrooms vanished in a whoosh of flames that scorched the stone foundations and charred the metal support poles.
“We realized right away that we had made a big mistake by not doing more to protect ourselves, to protect our school,” headmaster Wali Mohammed said.
A posse of village men took to the dry hills, trying unsuccessfully to track the arsonists. The next day, virtually all of Wach Tangi’s families, even the poorest, agreed to chip in what they could to have armed men guard the school at night once it reopened.
Within two days, the village had organized a protection committee made up of its most influential citizens, charged with the task of keeping the school, its pupils and its teachers safe.
The school is up and running again, in UNICEF-donated tents. Students still have the schoolbooks that were home with them when the old school was burned, and more are on the way from donors.
But the fire remains fresh in everyone’s mind.
“Those who did this to our school are enemies of our country,” said Abdul Wahed, a white-bearded tribal elder. “We won’t allow this to happen to us or to our children.”
Afghanistan’s Education Ministry has encouraged grass-roots school-protection initiatives in recent months, even though the central government has no money to fund them. There are no reliable figures, but the ministry believes more than half the country’s 9,000 schools are under some form of locally organized protection, whose effectiveness remains to be seen.
“There just aren’t enough police to watch over every school in the country,” said Zuhoor Afghan, a ministry spokesman. “But the local people know their own towns and villages best. They know who is a stranger; they know who has business there and who does not.”
Villagers are aware that their vigilante methods could cost them their lives. The Taliban, whose name means “students,” see Western-style education as a threat to their concept of a pure Islamic state. Their followers regard modern education as a force for Western colonialism.
Wahed, the elder in Wach Tangi, said he did not know what would have happened if villagers had caught up with armed men on the night of the fire.
“We had only a few old guns,” he said with a shrug. “But we would have done our best against them.”
Likewise, the night watchmen hired by the village are equipped only with handguns, little match for the automatic rifles carried by Taliban fighters.
Still, the villagers believe their newfound watchfulness will be a deterrent. And the school-protection committee members are trying, each in his own way, to help stave off attacks.
The mullah on the committee has been using mosque sermons to emphasize that nothing in the Koran forbids girls from receiving an education, as they do in Wach Tangi, where about half the nearly 500 pupils are girls. Boys study in the morning and girls in the afternoon.
One of the tribal chieftains on the committee is calling in favors from kinsmen nearby, asking them to keep their ears open for word of any threat. Another committee member has lobbied the police to mount more frequent patrols, winning a sympathetic hearing from a commander who grew up in the area.
Many of those associated with the school remain deeply fearful. Teacher Gul Anar said that after the fire, she considered abandoning her work. Dozens of teachers have been killed in Afghanistan, and she was afraid of becoming a victim too.
“I was terrified,” she said. “And losing our school was such a very sad moment. But then I thought of my students, how eager they are to learn, and I decided I must continue.”
Some educators believe that the recent lull in school burnings and other attacks is only partly due to the establishment of protection committees. Violence traditionally decreases during the coldest months, and they think the insurgents will become more active again during the spring.
Other school officials believe that the Taliban, after initially underestimating the strength of the country’s education ethic, may have discerned that the school-burning campaign was backfiring.
“People hated it during the time of the Taliban, when their daughters could not study and when nothing was taught in the schools but theology,” said Mohammed, the Wach Tangi headmaster. “Attacking schools is not going to make them popular again. Even they can see that.”
In what may have been a concession to that sentiment, a Taliban spokesman in the country’s south announced last month that the movement would begin opening schools of its own, at which girls “eventually” would be welcome.
Educators and Western military officials scoffed at the notion.
“What’s the curriculum going to be -- suicide bombings?” asked Mark Laity, the chief spokesman in Afghanistan for NATO.
“We don’t believe for a moment that education is a genuine goal of these people.... They don’t want Afghanistan to have a functioning government or civil society.”
“It’s only a ruse,” said Afghan, of the Education Ministry. “If they did open schools, they wouldn’t teach anything but religion -- no mathematics, no language, no history.”
In the classroom tents of Wach Tangi, teachers said, they still had not been able to adequately explain to their pupils why their school had been a target.
“After the fire, they asked me over and over again, ‘Why? Who would do this?’ ” said teacher Shoiabullah, who uses one name.
“We didn’t have a real answer for them. We said only that we would try our best to keep it from happening again.”