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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan ó Students at a brand new school on the outskirts of this nerve-racked city are back at their lessons after suspected Taliban insurgents accosted the night watchman and set the building on fire.
Gasoline-fuelled flames destroyed books and desks and blackened the walls of the Mia Abdul Hakim high school in the cityís west end, which opened its doors only three weeks ago.
The vandals, however, failed to destroy the spirits of the schoolís students, many of whom were back in class the very next day.
"When I heard my school was burned by (the) Taliban, I was shocked and my parents told me, ĎDo not go to school,í said Fatima, a 12-year-old Grade 4 student who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name.
"I came because I am missing my lessons and classmates. I love school and my teachers. I will keep coming to my school."
Abdul Hakim, the schoolís principal, said a group of five or six armed men confronted the janitor early Friday, bound his hands and threatened him with death while they set about burning down the facility.
"I experienced a slap on my face along with bad words," janitor Muhammad Hussain said as he described opening the door to a group of men at about 2 a.m. Friday morning.
"They (tied) my hands and ordered (me) not to move, if try would be killed . . . . The flame burst out from the windows, (and) thick black smoke erupted which clouded the skies as if a big tornado hit the area."
Two warehouses used to store supplies and equipment were destroyed, as was the schoolís main office, Hakim said. Several classrooms were badly damaged, the floors littered with the scorched remnants of books and furniture.
"Every individual has the due right to get education, but the enemy of education, the enemies of the country, (are) always trying to put us in dark," Hakim said.
"Our people believe (and) are strong, and they wonít step backwards. (They) will actually step forward to defeat the enemyís bad intentions."
Building schools and educating young Afghans, most notably girls ó their attendance at class was strictly forbidden under Taliban rule, and women in Afghanistan have a literacy rate of just 16 per cent ó is a major component of coalition rebuilding efforts.
The school has about 1,370 students ó 1,200 boys and 170 girls, said Muhammad Anwar, Kandahar provinceís director of education.
"Burning schools means burning the salvation, burning schools means burning the humanity," Anwar said.
"The enemies aim to put Afghans in dark lives, make them ignorant."
There are some 360 schools in Kandahar province, which is where most of the Canadian contingent of NATOís International Security Assistance Force is based. Of those, 224 are open and functioning, while the rest are currently closed due to the ever-present perils that are a daily reality in southern Afghanistan, Anwar said.
"If my home was burned it would not have hurt my feeling as (much) as being hurt by school burning," said Shakira, an 11-year-old Grade 4 student.
"This is the work of the enemy of our nation, the enemy of education and the enemy of our people, against knowledge."
"I was very happy that the building of the school (was) completed because before we didnít have a classroom like this," said Hikmatullah, a 19-year-old Grade 7 student.
"When I learned that the school was burned by armed men, it was the saddest moment for me ó you see the books, chairs, table, tents, biscuits and cooking oils all are burned to ashes.
"Who are they? Why they are burning our books and classrooms? We are learning here, we are not dancing or doing bad things. This is not the work of Muslims."