LOGAR, 21 June 2007 (IRIN) - "I do not want to go to school," 12-year-old Maryam told her father in Sadaat village in the central Afghan province of Logar, where gunmen recently assassinated two schoolgirls.
"I am afraid," the traumatised girl begged her parents.
"I will be with you. I will not let anyone harm you," Maryam's father said, trying to encourage her.
[This report is also available as a radio story in Dari.]
Maryam witnessed the assassination of two fellow students in front of her school in Sadaat village, a suburb of Pul-i-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar Province, some 30km west of Kabul, on 12 June.
The incident has sparked widespread worries among many parents who fear for the safety of their daughters at school.
According to provincial officials, many female students have been absent from school since the shooting occurred a week ago.
Pakiza Mehboob, a teacher at a neighbouring girls' school in Pul-i-Alam, told IRIN that half of her students have been absent for a week.
"If the government does not improve security I will also quit my job as a teacher," Mehboob said. "I really feel scared when I see men who ride motorcycles."
Kamaluddin Zadran, head of Logar's education department, acknowledged the shrinking number of female students, but said it was only temporary.
"The attack has had a psychological impact on some families which will soon fade away and we look forward to having every student back in class," said Zadran.
Demands for improved security
Some parents said they would only let their daughters re-join their schools if their security was ensured.
Saeed Agha, a bereaved father of one of the victims of 12 June shooting, said he wants his second daughter to be educated, but not to risk her life.
"The government should change the current option of 'life or education' for our daughters," said Agha.
In the past two years the Qalai Saeeda girls' high school had experienced several attacks, according to the provincial education department.
"About three months ago this school was hit by a rocket, and a little while ago some men tried to torch it," said Saeed Hasan, who works at the school.
Some villagers criticised local officials for their failure to provide better protection for the school while it repeatedly came under attack.
"They [attackers] would not have caused this tragedy if police or a guard had been at the school gate," said a local resident.
But, Afghanistan's Ministry of Education (MoE) has said it cannot appoint security guards for each of the country's 9,000 schools.
"We believe attacks on schools and students will be thwarted when people actively take part in schools' protection. Given the fact that our government is still working to establish a national police force, it is not feasible to demand school protection units," Zuhoor Afghan, an MoE spokesman, told IRIN on 19 June.
"A heinous and cowardly act"
In a statement released from New York the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF) called the attack on schoolgirls in Logar "a heinous and cowardly act".
In a sign of sympathy Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the construction of two new schools in Logar Province to be named after the two deceased students.
Shukria, 12, and Saadia, 13, were shot dead by two motorcyclists while leaving school for home, local officials reported. One female passer-by was also killed in the same incident, which left four students wounded. "Two injured students have been sent to Kabul for extended medical treatment," local police said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Taliban insurgents have repeatedly told the media of their opposition to girls' education.
The Taliban imposed a ban on girls' formal education and women's work outside the home during their rule from 1996 to late 2001.
Access to education limited
Since the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001 the number of Afghan children who go to school has progressively increased, UNICEF and the Afghan government confirmed.
According to MoE, over six million children, around 38 percent of them female, now go to schools across the country.
However, a growing insurgency, attacks on schools and a series of socio-economic barriers have still deprived millions of Afghan children of formal schooling, British charity organisation, Oxfam, reported in late 2006.
In the last two months alone, 14 cases of attacks on schools, mostly torchings, have been confirmed, according to UNICEF.
In the volatile south and southeast of the country tens of schools remain closed due to continued threats by Taliban insurgents and other local militias, an MoE official conceded.
Afghanistan's central statistics department said in 2006 that over half of the country's estimated 24 million population is illiterate.