Eighty-nine schoolgirls and their teachers in northern Afghanistan were hospitalised with respiratory and neurological symptoms over the weekend in what officials believe were deliberate poisonings at two girls’ schools, officials said.
On Saturday, 63 students and staff members at Kabod Aab School – an elementary school for girls in the northern Sar-i-Pul province – became sick shortly after arriving in their classrooms that morning, officials and parents of those students said.
The following day, 26 more students, along with staff members at the nearby Faiz Abad Girls’ School, became ill and reported similar symptoms.
The suggestion that someone had tried to poison schoolgirls frightened young girls and their parents in this region in Afghanistan, where restrictions on education have become a flashpoint since the Taliban seized power in 2021 and emblematic of the government’s policies toward women that have effectively erased them from public life.
Local Afghan officials said they believed the poisonings were motivated by local animosities between villages. Several local elders and residents expressed scepticism over that claim.
The students and the staff members were hospitalised with shortness of breath, weakness, nausea and headaches
Girls are prohibited from attending school above sixth grade in Afghanistan, but they are permitted to attend elementary schools, so most of the girls who fell sick were 6 to 12 years old.
The students and the staff members were hospitalised with shortness of breath, weakness, nausea and headaches, and many were put on ventilators, their relatives said. By Monday, around half of them had been discharged, according to local officials.
“Unknown people spread poisonous substances inside the classrooms, and when the students entered the classrooms, they experienced shortness of breath, watery eyes and noses, and they lost consciousness,” said Umair Sarpuli, the director of culture and information in the province.
Security and intelligence forces were still searching for the perpetrators, according to local officials, in what comes at a precarious time for girls across Afghanistan.
In March last year, the Taliban administration barred girls from attending high schools and in November, it prohibited women from attending university. Women have also been barred from going to many public places like gyms and parks, travelling any significant distance without a male relative and working in most fields outside of the private sector and healthcare.
The government’s policies rolling back women’s rights have come to define how western countries view the Taliban, diplomats and observers say, and have drawn near universal condemnation, including from Islamic governments such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The problems at the two schools were first reported around 8am. Saturday, according to parents and local elders. Shortly after teachers began their lessons for the day at Kabod Aab School, two children began having convulsions and struggled to breathe.
The school administrator sent the two children home, assuming they had a common flu. But within 20 minutes, dozens of students began showing similar symptoms and were transferred by cars to a local clinic.
Qasim Qurban, 38, a farmer in the district, was working in his field when a neighbour ran up to him and told him that his daughters had fallen sick, he said. He went to the local clinic and found his 10-year-old daughter, Sabera, and 13-year-old daughter, Hadia, struggling through laboured breaths. The two girls were then transferred to the provincial hospital.
“Every half an hour or an hour, they would suffer from shortness of breath, and then they would connect to a ventilator,” he said.
The next day, dozens of other students at the Faiz Abad Girls’ School fell sick with similar symptoms, officials said.
For over a decade, Afghanistan had experienced sporadic incidents of what were believed to be poisonings at girls’ schools across the country. Under the previous western-backed government, officials tended to blame the Taliban for the attacks – an allegation the Taliban denied at the time.
The government’s policies rolling back women’s rights have come to define how western countries view the Taliban, diplomats and observers say
In 2012, nearly 300 schoolgirls in the northern province of Takhar fell sick. A year later, around 200 schoolgirls became ill in a similar incident in the capital, Kabul. In another big incident in 2016, around 600 schoolgirls in Herat province in northern Afghanistan were targeted with what officials suspected was toxic gas.
Earlier this year, similar incidents gained attention in neighbouring Iran after hundreds of schoolgirls were hospitalised by what Iranian officials said might have been deliberate poisonings aimed at preventing girls from attending school.
The two affected schools remained closed on Monday as security forces carried out their investigation, but across the province, the episodes renewed concerns among parents, some of whom were already worried about their daughters’ safety going to elementary schools.
Since the Taliban seized power and rolled back women’s rights, many parents worry that people who are opposed to education for girls feel more empowered to act with impunity – and could carry out attacks on girls’ schools, they say.
“Everyone is scared, and we should be scared because the poisoning of the students is severe,” said Hassan Haidari, whose daughter is a teacher in Kabod Aab School and was hospitalised on Saturday. On Monday, she remained in serious condition and on a ventilator at the provincial hospital.
“People want to know who did this to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Haidari said. “Otherwise, no one will send their daughter to school.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.