American University reopens, defying threats of attack

Defying threats of another deadly attack, the American University of Afghanistan, or AUAF, has re-opened in Kabul with upgraded security. Classes restarted on Tuesday, seven months after militants stormed its compound, located on a busy street in the western part of the Afghan capital, leaving 13 dead, including seven students, one lecturer, and a member of the Afghan security forces.

The attack forced the university – which is the country’s leading higher education institution – to shut down and left the fate of hundreds of students in limbo, until it officially reopened on 25 March, although its Professional Development Institute, which is also a major test centre for international examinations including TOEFL, GRE and international accountancy qualifications, reopened in January.

The university has moved all of its faculty staff and some students into housing on the campus. It has fortified and almost doubled the height of the boundary walls, with guard towers and checkpoints manned by heavily armed foreign guards employed by a Canadian private security firm.

“We are very grateful to the Afghan government, particularly President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani who granted us an exemption to hire a foreign security firm, which is not usually allowed in Afghanistan anymore,” Zubaida Akbar, the university’s director for communications, told University World News.

Private security guards had previously been banned in Afghanistan since 2010.

Akbar noted that against all the predictions, the turnout at the university has been impressive. “In fact, the enrolment rate has been higher than ever; we have 80 new students this year, the campus is much larger and with many more facilities and features than before,” she added.

She said the university had been in touch with its students via the internet throughout the past seven months to ensure they stay on track with the syllabus.

Upbeat mood

Despite haunting memories of the horror last August, the mood on campus has been upbeat upon re-opening. Students embraced each other warmly, and Afghan Year greetings – the new year began on 21 March – resounded around campus as students resumed their studies.

Political science student Rahmatullah Amiri was shot with three bullets during the deadly assault on the campus last year. “We will never give up on our quest for knowledge; what the militants did [at the university] was absolutely wrong from all perspectives,” he said last week, showing a resistance typical of Afghan people after decades of conflict.

Another student, Mohammad Haseeb, 21, said AUAF is his best chance for a quality education. “I am determined to complete my studies here no matter what,” he told University World News.

Shukria Sultani is among many young Afghan women at the university, a third-year student at the faculty of business and administration. Sultani praised AUAF for taking care of students’ post-education life by helping them seek internships and jobs and said she was content with the faculty members and academic system at the university.

Parents of students have been invited to visit the campus to see the new security measures, to allay their fears of another attack – militants have targeted educational institutions in recent years.

Established in 2006, the AUAF, with some 1,700 students, offers graduate and undergraduate programmes based on the United States system. However, due to its association with the US, it has been targeted by militants. Two of its professors, American Kevin King and Australian Tim Weeks, who were abducted last year, remain in the custody of militants.

The Taliban have never officially claimed responsibility, but David Sedney, the university’s president who was appointed after the attack, and US officials in Afghanistan have blamed Taliban militants for the attack .

The university administration has said the university’s security officials will work more closely with Afghan and international agencies to be better informed about possible threats.