Saturday, 24 Oct 2020

Her Tutoring Center Was Bombed. She Still Topped Afghanistan’s National University Exam.

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan teenager who narrowly avoided a deadly attack on her tutoring center in 2018 has received the highest score this year on the national university entrance exam, in a sign of the progress of girls’ education in the country even as the government enters peace talks with a Taliban insurgency long known for barring their schooling.

The student, Shamsea Alizada, 18, learned on Thursday that she had aced the exam, achieving the highest score out of nearly 200,000 students, when the results were announced on television. Her mother caught the broadcast and delivered the news.

“I didn’t believe it. I thought she is kidding. But when I entered the room, I saw the brightest smile on my mother’s face,” Ms. Alizada said in an interview. “I have seen her smiling, but yesterday’s smile was something else. Her smile was a gift and made my day; it was better than gaining the highest score in the country.”

Ms. Alizada was a junior student at a tutoring center that prepared underprivileged Afghans for the country’s competitive university entrance exam when a suicide bomber walked into a lecture hall packed with more than 200 older students and detonated his explosive vest.

Half of the students in the room were killed or wounded, and Ms. Alizada lost friends and young women she looked up to. A center that incubated a universal dream — a good education as the ticket out of poverty and oppression — was turned into a scene of carnage, the algebra equations on the whiteboard covered in blood.

Ms. Alizada, a confident and eloquent young woman, has become an overnight celebrity at an emotional time in Afghanistan.

Even as government negotiators are trying to find a way out of the decades-long conflict with the Taliban, the war rages on. Every day, dozens of young people are killed in fighting.

At stake in the peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar, are achievements of the past two decades, including the rights of women and the treatment of minorities such as the ethnic Hazaras after a long history of oppression.

The Taliban denied girls and women the right to study and work when they controlled the country in the 1990s.

“I hope both sides fulfill their promise — I hope no one gets killed in Afghanistan anymore,” Ms. Alizada said. “We have been through a lot. I hope the Taliban let the Afghan women live their dreams — we don’t want to be limited.”

The bombing at Mawoud Academy was claimed by an offshoot of the Islamic State that has exploited the complicated battlefield in Afghanistan, attacking soft targets including mosques, schools and hospitals. The lecture hall had been so packed, and the explosion so powerful, that at least 40 people were killed and more than 60 others wounded.

Most of the victims were underprivileged children from small villages in central Afghanistan, a largely ethnic Hazara part of the country. Many stayed in Kabul, the capital, at $15-a-month hostels away from their families in order to pursue their educations. Some of their coffins made it back to the villages. Others, including a pair holding 19-year-old twins, ended up buried on a Kabul hilltop.

Ms. Alizada, a Hazara herself, is originally from the Jaghori district of Ghazni Province, but her family of five has been on the move in search of a better life since she was an infant. Her family lived in western Herat Province before moving to Kabul. In Herat, Ms. Alizada took free martial arts classes, but she had to give up her training in Kabul, as the lessons there were too expensive.

Her father is a coal miner in northern Afghanistan, making it home only every six months.

“The phone connection in Samangan is really bad,” Ms. Alizada said, referring to the northern province where her father works. “Last night at 8 p.m. I finally managed to talk to my father. He was so happy he was in tears.”

Fatima Faizi reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mujib Mashal from Doha, Qatar.

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