Taliban poison attack or mass hysteria? Chaos hits another Kabul girls' school
Dozens of pupils treated in hospital as Afghan militants accused of poison attack on girls
by Jon Boone in Kabul
When the order came to evacuate the Totia high school, hundreds of girls ran from their desks clutching handkerchiefs and their headscarves over their mouths. School bags were abandoned as some leapt out of the ground floor windows of their dilapidated two-storey school block rather than trying to push their way through a melee of teenage girls all rushing to get out to fresh air.
Teachers tried to organise an orderly departure but their efforts were in vain amid rising panic that the school had become the latest in Afghanistan to be hit by an apparent poison gas attack.
A total of 46 students and nine teachers were treated in hospital after what Mohammad Asif Nang, an official at the education ministry, described as "an apparent poisoning" attack by "the enemies of women's education".
According to staff, parents and onlookers, girls began fainting in the school's main classroom block at about 10.30 this morning, during the first of three daily shifts designed to triple the number of girls at the school.
Some victims had to be carried out while others stumbled to the school gates, where about 18 slumped to the ground unconscious, said Abdul Haq, a 15-year-old boy who witnessed the incident.
Many were taken to hospital and most quickly recovered but some girls remained unconscious for several hours, doctors said. Others were vomiting and complaining of nausea.
The symptoms matched those of other cases reported around the country. Opinions are divided between those who denounce the incidents as malicious attacks by social conservatives who disapprove of female education and sceptics who think the culprit is more likely to be mass hysteria.
At the Boost hospital, the head doctor, Abdullah Abid, said four of the 22 girls admitted remained unconscious for at least two hours.
"An ordinary doctor in a hospital cannot say exactly what causes this without further tests, but I think poisoned gas is most likely," he said. "It has happened many times before in Afghanistan."
He said that after studying psychiatry for a year in Pakistan he had become acutely aware of the power of hysteria and its ability to cause physiological responses, but he did not think that was the cause of the latest incident.
"I think three of them were just suffering from shock from seeing their friends become ill. But something else must have happened to the others."
Education ministry officials said five similar cases had been dealt with in Kabul this year alone and eleven more around the country.
The Taliban banned girls' education when they were in power between 1996 and 2001 and they continue to target women and girls' schools in the areas they control.
One of their intimidation techniques is the so-called "night letters" dropped off at homes and schools. In one case in a northern province in February a letter, which was handed to Human Rights Watch, said the school was misleading "pure and innocent girls".
With Taliban violence surging across the country, the fear of insurgent attacks is becoming a bigger concern for ordinary Afghans, even in relatively secure cities such as Kabul.
The existence of such fears, as documented by cases in Mexico and Kosovo, can trigger mass hysteria accompanied by actual physical illness, experts say. The large number of attacks against schools reported in the Afghan media could exacerbate the problem of fretful students believing they have been poisoned.
This morning Totia high school was crowded with girls aged between 16 and 18 but witnesses did not report the presence of any strangers. The authorities are investigating.
Lal Mohammad, the school's caretaker, said nothing untoward had been found so far. The only thing unusual was a nauseating smell, apparently similar to that of human sewage, which greeted the students when they arrived in the morning.
"It was so bad that the head said we must tell the neighbouring houses that they should only clear out their shit at the night time," Mohammad said.
As the smell got much worse panic spread through the building, he said.
All the classroom doors along the corridor were open and the complaints of dizziness and fainting moved quickly from end of the building to the other, Mohammad said.
Western medical experts have taken blood samples from alleged victims while investigating previous incidents but have been unable to find clear evidence of poisoning. They have also questioned how such an apparently powerful gas could be spread with such apparent ease round large school buildings.
In today's incident some girls first displayed symptoms long after everyone else. Massoud Mohammad, an 18-year-old with a younger sister at the school, said two girls only fainted some time after they had returned home and changed out of their school clothes.
But in the largely Pashtun neighbourhood in a rough area of eastern Kabul no one believed the incident was anything other than a chemical attack by people who object to female education.
"These people are not Muslims," said Mohammad Shamin, who rushed to hospital from work to see his 14-year-old daughter, who had been taken there after feeling dizzy.
"There is nothing in Islam that says you can attack girls."
2009 Five girls briefly slipped into comas and nearly 100 other pupils needed treatment after an alleged gas attack on their school. The victims were vomiting and dizzy, and some lost consciousness. Taliban sympathisers hostile to girls' education were blamed.
2008 In Logar province a primary school was targeted by arsonists intent on preventing local girls being taught. The suspected Taliban raiders were thwarted by a gang of fathers who chased them away.
February 2006 Armed gunmen walked through the school gates of Kartilaya school in Lashkar Gar and killed several pupils. The school consisted of mostly female students.
January 2006 A male teacher was dragged into the courtyard of a co-educational school and beheaded by suspected Taliban militants in Zabul province. The school had received threats for continuing to teach girls. 2002 Taliban sympathisers fired rockets at several schools in the Wardak province, near Kabul, as part of a sustained effort to stop parents from sending their daughters to study. They also raided a school at a village mosque, setting fire to chairs and blackboard.
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Radio Free Europe - August 31, 2010
U.S. Concerned Over Attacks On Afghan Schoolchildren
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said in a statement that the United States is "deeply concerned" by the recent poisonings of Afghan schoolchildren in Kabul.
She said that "while details of these attacks are still being verified, Afghan schools, teachers, and students, particularly girls, are regularly targeted by antigovernment elements seeking to destabilize Afghanistan and undermine progress."
Clinton urged the international community to continue to support Afghanistan's government in combating repression and violence against girls seeking an education.
Two schools in the Afghan capital, Kabul, were struck by apparent gas attacks that injured more than 100 schoolgirls, including one that sickened 60 students at a girls school on August 25 [see story above] and another on August 28 that left 48 young girls in need of medical care. [see video below]
This article was found at:
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