90 Afghan Schoolgirls Poisoned in 'Taliban Gas Attack'

Human Rights

The pupils were lining up outside their classrooms for morning assembly when one girl suddenly collapsed unconscious. "She was only little," said Gulcheena, a 13-year-old student of the school who fell ill herself moments later.

They were among 90 Afghan school girls rushed to hospital yesterday unconscious and vomiting, possibly victims of a gas poisoning attack on their school in Mahmud Raqi village.

"The teachers picked her up and carried her to the school office," Gulcheena said. "We went into our class and the teacher was calling the roll call when suddenly she told us to go outside."

Of the 90 girls from the Qazaam school admitted to hospital, at least five slipped briefly into comas, officials in Kapisa province, northeast of the capital, said. Six teachers and at least two other staff were also admitted.

One of the teachers, Zakira, collapsed in front of her students. The headmistress, Mossena, said there was a strange odor which engulfed the courtyard as girls began retching uncontrollably. Medics said most of the victims were between eight and 12 years old.

It was the third such attack against a girls' school in Afghanistan in as many weeks, raising fears that the Taliban are resorting to increasingly vicious methods to terrorize young women out of education. Police officials blamed Taliban sympathizers but the insurgents' spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied any involvement. "Harming children is not the work of holy warriors," he said. "We absolutely reject this."

Gulcheena described the gas smelling like a chemical known locally as Mallatin, which farmers sometimes spread on fields to poison foraging birds. The provincial police chief, Matiullah Safi, said none of the students, teachers or support staff had seen anything suspicious. "It looks like something was sprayed in the school but so far no one has been arrested," he said. "There's no proof, at the moment, that this was an attack."

But the alleged poisoning comes just days after girls at a school in nearby Charikar, on the road north of Kabul, complained of similar symptoms.

Last November, men on motorbikes used water pistols to squirt acid in girls' faces as they walked to school on the outskirts of Kandahar. More than a dozen girls and several teachers at the Mirwais School for Girls had the acid thrown in their faces and one was so badly disfigured she had to go abroad for treatment. The attacks caused such distress and fear that many parents kept their girls at home for several weeks but most have since returned to school, vowing not to be intimidated.

The Taliban denied involvement in the acid attacks too but police claimed the men were paid by insurgents hired by rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence agency. President Hamid Karzai, seemingly intent on avoiding any confrontation with Pakistan over the matter, subsequently denied there had been any Pakistani involvement.

Women's education was banned under the Taliban, and girls' schools are routinely torched or closed in areas where the insurgents hold sway. Prior to the acid attacks, the Taliban had strengthened their grip in the Mirwais area and other districts close to Kandahar and posters had started appearing warning local people not to let their daughters go to school.

Large parts of Kapisa are now under the control of men loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord once bankrolled by the U.S. who is now in talks with the Afghan government of President Karzai. Parwan province, where the two previous gas attacks took place, is widely considered to be one of the safest places in Afghanistan.

Speaking from her hospital bed, Gulcheena said she collapsed moments after rushing outside. "The teachers splashed water on my face, but when I opened my eyes the next thing I knew, I was in hospital." Seayahmuy, a 15-year-old student in her final year at the school, said doctors had ordered her to stay in overnight. She said she did not remember a strange smell, nor did she see any gas. Dr. Abdul Mateen said most of the patients were suffering from vomiting, nausea and dizziness. "We don't have the equipment here to do a full diagnosis," Dr. Mateen said. Blood samples were being sent for analysis to the U.S. base at Bagram.

The Taliban have shown themselves capable of increasingly complex attacks and Nato accused them this week of using white phosphorus. But they are not thought to have used gas as a weapon in recent years.

One girl, Leda, 12, said from her hospital bed: "We were very weak, sick and dizzy. When I opened my eyes we were in hospital. I am so sad, what went wrong with our school? I want to study."

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