Marines Help Afghan Kids go to School

Marines help to educate the children in Safar Bazaar in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Marines and the Afghan Army help to educate the children in Safar Bazaar in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.

As part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," - CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines at home, and abroad in Afghanistan.

The last time we were in Safar Bazaar in southern Helmand province in August, the main street with its stores was strewn with improvised explosive devices - IEDs - and deserted. The 3/1 Marines had just attacked the town from the desert and driven the Taliban out, but the locals were scared to come back until all the bombs had been cleared.

Most people stayed inside the walled compounds of their houses as one IED after another was blown up in controlled detonations by the Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams. By now, two months on, they have found over 100 devices in and around the town, and have cleared the main street and the main access roads. Life is returning to normal, the shops are busy again during the day, and one of the locals' main priorities is getting their kids to school.

The job fell to Captain Gil Nelson, who is in charge of civil affairs in Safar, along with the local Afghan army commander, Captain Abdul Ghaffar. They had some problems.

First - there was no school building. So, Capt. Nelson decided to pitch three tents in the desert, right next to the Marines' base for security. One tent per classroom. They declared the school would open on September 15th, except...

The second problem was - there were no teachers. There are adults in Safar who are educated and could be teachers, but for the time being they are too scared to come forwards. Even though the Taliban no longer control the town, they have been sneaking back in at night to leave threatening "night letters" for people, warning them they will be killed or severely beaten if they work for the Americans. So Nelson and Ghaffar recruited Afghan interpreters working for the Marines and some of the better-educated Afghan soldiers to teach the children, who were willing to volunteer, except...

The third problem - there were no books. This problem was easier to solve - they simply went to the market and found textbooks for sale there and bought them. In theory, the Afghan government's Ministry of Education should supply both teachers and textbooks to all children of school age. But this town has been so deep in Taliban territory for so long that the government is scared to come down here. The Marines hope that will change, sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile every day except Friday, from 8 am to 11 am, several dozen kids, almost all boys, turn up to study reading and writing in their Pashto language and mathematics. The teachers also give short lessons on security to the children, warning them not to touch wires or buried bombs. Last month a nine year old girl was killed by an IED - all the kids knew about her, clicking their tongues in disapproval. When we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they all said "engineer" or "doctor" - two of the most prestigious professions in Afghan society. So now Captain Nelson, Captain Ghaffar and the people of Safar are happy with the school, even if it is in tents in the desert with volunteer teachers, except...

The final problem - many of the childrens' parents cannot read or write and they are scared their children will soon be better educated than they are... so now Nelson is being asked to set up lessons for adults in the afternoon, when the kids' classes are over...

More of Terry McCarthy's "Thundering Third" Blogs:

The Most Dangerous Job in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a Beautiful Desert Goes Boom

A Day in the Life: Wardak, Afghanistan

Preaching to the Corps