Courageous start for students as American University of Afghanistan reopens

Courageous start for students as American University of Afghanistan reopens
A new beginning. Pic: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail.

For Kabul political science student Rahmatullah Amiri, who was shot three times in a Taliban raid on the American University of Afghanistan last August and still on crutches, restarting classes is the best possible answer to his attackers.

“The only thing I can do to tell those terrorists what they have done is wrong is come back to this university,” Rahmatullah, who saw a friend die in front of him in the attack which killed at least 16 people, told Reuters at the campus on Monday.

The attack shattered the university’s image as an island of liberalism and learning in a country plagued by militant violence, and many feared the institution would not fully recover.

Female students of American University of Afghanistan hug each other as they arrive for new orientation session in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 27, 2017. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail.

Many international organizations have pulled staff out of Afghanistan amid a general deterioration in security, and university officials acknowledged faculty turnover since the attack has been 20 to 30 percent higher than usual.

Student enrollment is slightly up compared to last year, however, and on a sunny day this week, students arrived for new orientation sessions and construction crews continued work on new classrooms and a cafeteria.

A day before classes were scheduled to begin on Tuesday, the campus was abuzz with the voices of students attending orientation courses and construction workers building new facilities.

Students return to their campus with more security features and reinforcements. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail.

Students expressed excitement, but also trepidation ahead of the restart of classes.

“I want to come back to school … to see my friends and acquire knowledge,” said Nargis Azaryoun, who managed to escape the attack unharmed. “But I’m also worried if we get hit for the second time.”

Around the grounds, signs of increased security are everywhere, and orientation classes focused heavily on safety training. The final slide in a presentation urged students: “If you see something suspicious, report it!”

Tall concrete blast barriers now tower more than twice as high as the old stone walls.

Guard towers and checkpoints are manned by heavily armed foreign guards employed by a Canadian private security firm.

The use of a foreign security company had to be approved by Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, as such businesses have generally been banned in Afghanistan for years.

The government guards tasked with securing the school during last year’s attack were “completely ineffective,” said acting university president David Sedney, a crisis management expert brought in to oversee efforts to reopen.

“We’ve made massive improvements and changes in our security over the last seven months since the attack,” he said.

The university has also moved all of its faculty and some students into housing on the campus, a move aimed at reducing risks, including kidnapping.

Just weeks before the August attack, two professors were kidnapped just outside the campus, prompting the university to shut down for several days. The pair is still missing.

Rahmatullah said while he expected there to be some “hard moments” as students remember lost friends, he remained motivated.

“In order to be successful, you have to take some risks.” – Reuters

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