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Afghan villagers stand guard to protect schools

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Atefa's dream might have ended on a bright winter morning 13 months ago.

The hazel-eyed 8-year-old still has a ways to go before she becomes a surgeon, which she confidently proclaims as her life's goal. Yet graduating from grade school is one important step – and on Feb. 10, 2006, that seemed almost impossible.

Overnight, the Medrawer Girls School was burned to a charred husk by terrorists determined to prevent local girls from reading textbooks and learning geometry. Smoke still curled above the surrounding eucalyptus grove as the students arrived for class – their hopes of an education, and the better life it promised, vanishing in the morning sunshine.

Even then, however, the village elders were beginning to formulate a decision that would change the lives of Atefa and – some would say – girls across Afghanistan. Later that day, they decided to take protection of the school into their own hands, cobbling together a corps of village volunteers that has stood watch over the now-rebuilt school every night since, sometimes armed only with spare farm tools and ancient swords passed down as family heirlooms.

There hasn't been an attack since.

Local authorities say that this was Afghanistan's first community-sponsored school-watch program. In the intervening year, the Afghan Department of Education has championed the idea nationwide in an effort to maintain what has been, in many respects, the government's most celebrated success: bringing education to Afghanistan – and especially to girls.

"Education has a special importance in Afghanistan, and that is what our enemies know," says Mohammad Patman, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education.

National education officials estimate that during the past 18 months, the Taliban has burned more than 180 Afghan schools. The threat of attacks, according to a 2006 UNICEF report, has prevented 100,000 children from attending school.

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