Hope Grows, Fear Lingers as American University in Afghanistan Reopens After Deadly Attack

For Kabul political science student Rahmatullah Amiri, shot three times in a Taliban raid on the American University of Afghanistan last August and still on crutches, restarting classes is the best possible answer to his attackers.

“The only thing I can do to tell those terrorists that what they have done is wrong is come back to this university,” Amiri, who saw a friend die in front of him in the attack that killed at least 16 people, told Reuters at the campus Monday.

The attack shattered the university’s image as an island of liberalism and learning in a country plagued by militant violence, and many feared the institution would not fully recover.

Many international organizations have pulled staff out of Afghanistan amid a general deterioration in security, and university officials acknowledged that faculty turnover since the attack has been 20 to 30 percent higher than usual.

Student enrollment is slightly up compared to last year, however, and on a sunny day this week students arrived for new orientation sessions and construction crews continued work on new classrooms and a cafeteria.

A day before classes were scheduled to begin Tuesday, the campus was abuzz with the voices of students attending orientation courses and construction workers building new facilities.

Students expressed excitement but also trepidation ahead of the restart of classes.

“I want to come back to school … to see my friends and acquire knowledge,” said Nargis Azaryoun, who managed to escape the attack unharmed. “But I’m also worried about if we get hit for the second time.”

Around the grounds, signs of increased security are everywhere, and orientation classes focused heavily on safety training. The final slide in a presentation urged students: “If you see something suspicious, report it!”

Tall concrete blast barriers now tower more than twice as high as the old stone walls.

Guard towers and checkpoints are manned by heavily armed foreign guards employed by a Canadian private security firm.

The use of a foreign security company had to be approved by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as such businesses have generally been banned in Afghanistan for years.

The government guards tasked with securing the school during last year’s attack were “completely ineffective,” said acting university president David Sedney, a crisis management expert brought in to oversee efforts to reopen.

“We’ve made massive improvements and changes in our security over the last seven months since the attack,” he said.

The university has also moved all its faculty and some students into housing on the campus, a move aimed at reducing risks, including kidnapping.

Just weeks before the August attack, two professors were kidnapped just outside the campus, prompting the university to shut down for several days. The pair is still missing.

Amiri said that while he expects there to be some “hard moments” as students remember lost friends, he remains motivated.

“In order to be successful, you have to take some risks,” he said.

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