January 30, 2009 ( Nella foto una delle ragazze aggredite)
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - It was an attack, vicious even by Afghanistan's violent standards, that shocked the world: A group of men on motorbikes surprised a group of school girls and teachers as they walked to school last November and sprayed their faces with acid.
Now, in what is being billed as a triumph over terrorism in this war-ravaged land, most of the 1,300 students - some with permanent scars on their cheeks and damaged vision - have returned to school full time.
Credit has been handed to headmaster Mahmood Qadri, 54, who moved quickly after the attacks, cajoling and begging the frightened families of the girls not to let the attackers win by giving up on their education.
"We told them not to lose this chance for your children," Mr. Qadri said.
Student Atifa Bibi recovers in a Kandahar hospital last fall after two men on a motorcycle threw acid on her as she was walking to school. (Allauddin Khan/Associated Press)
And most listened. Classrooms at Mirwais School for Girls on the outskirts of Kandahar city were brimming earlier this month as the girls prepared for mid-year exams.
One girl told a U.S. reporter that her father urged her to return to school at all costs, even if she is attacked again.
Mr. Qadri's efforts were as much to prove a point to the attackers and would-be copycats: If the goal was to intimidate the girls into staying home, the effort was doomed.
Within days of the assault, Mr. Qadri called a series of meetings with parents and teachers.
Some of the parents were fed up with the threats and attacks from insurgents.
"They were telling us ... if we don't [stand up] to this event, the insurgents will kill us and our children [in the next attack]," Mr. Qadri said.
The headmaster also met with government officials, asking for better security and buses for the girls, many of whom walk for kilometres to and from school.
So far, those requests have not been met.
Many of the Mirwais students come from families whose parents are illiterate. Despite government efforts to reverse the previous Taliban regime's edict forbidding women and girls from attending school and working outside the home, many people in this conservative province still frown on educating girls.
According to government statistics, girls make up 35 per cent of the 5.7 million students enrolled in school in Afghanistan. By remaining open, the Mirwais school remains a symbol of progress and hope in Kandahar.
At first, Mr. Qadri feared the parents would not let their children return. The day after the attack, only a few girls appeared for class, but each day their numbers have increased.
But for some students, the wounds from that morning are still raw.
Susan Ibrahimi, 18, remembers walking to school with her mother, also a teacher, when she spotted the men on motorcycles.
"They stopped in front of us," Ms. Ibrahimi said. "They took a thing hidden in some clothes, like a long pistol."
Some of the men tried to lift the women's burkas. Using spray guns, they splashed acid on the fabric, disintegrating the material. Burned and temporarily blinded, the two women ran home.
Susan's sister, Mina, a teacher who had stayed at home that day, said the two women were crying in pain and clutching their faces, which were blotched and red from the attack. Ms. Ibrahimi was the more seriously injured.
"They were in a very bad situation," Mina said. "Susan's face was hidden by her burka but some of the acid reached her face. Her face was red. Some parts of her face were burnt."
Ms. Ibrahimi was treated at a Kandahar hospital and prescribed medication. When the weather turned colder, pieces of skin began to fall off her face. She has since moved to Kabul for more treatment.
Mina said her sister is still too traumatized to resume teaching in Kandahar.
The attack appeared to have the hallmarks of a Taliban assault.
Schools, especially those catering to girls, have been targets of insurgent attacks and threats.
Police later arrested eight men. One confessed on videotape, saying he was paid by Pakistan's intelligence service. But President Hamid Karzai later told a news conference that no foreign forces were behind the attack.
Mina said she believed the assault was ordered from Pakistan, by people "who don't want us to progress even in education. They want us to be their slaves."
In time, Mina said, her sister will be back at school.
"La cosa principale è la conoscenza e la conoscenza è una bella cosa per una persona"