May 3rd, 2010
08:55 AM ET

What caused illness in girls at 3 schools?

[cnn-video url=http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2010/05/02/abawi.afghan.poisoned.cnn]

A beautiful week of crisp spring weather in the green lands of northern Afghanistan turned to terror for hundreds of Afghan schoolgirls.
 
At Khadija Kobra High School in  Kunduz province, girls were studying inside the walls of their open-air school, sitting at their desks as leaves rustled above them with the fresh breeze blowing through.
 
But suddenly something changed.
 
“We noticed that the air in the school smelled beautiful, like a flower, as if someone sprayed perfume into the school,” said Alia Ghizalkohee, a teacher at the school.
 
And that’s when the girls started to drop one after the other.
 
“We were all in a panic and wanted to get out,” 16-year-old Soodaba said.  “That’s when we noticed the crowd at the door and this strong perfume like fragrance hitting our sinuses and suddenly we started getting dizzy.”
 
Khadija High School is for the most part cut off from the rest of the population by three roads and a mosque surrounding it on all sides, making it an easy target.
 
The girls began vomiting and fainting, many rushed to the hospital.
 
At first people suspected mass hysteria until two more schools on different days went through the same frightening ordeal.
 
The regional hospital administered to 124 girls from the three schools and more than a hundred more women and girls showed up to be checked out but turned away.
 
“This is the first time during the six years I’ve been here as hospital director that we’ve seen these kind of patients,” said Dr. Humayoun Khamoush, the director of Kunduz’s Regional Hospital.
 
Toxicologists are investigating but it's not clear how it was released.

 But, “this was obviously done by someone intentionally,” Dr. Khamoush said.
 
Although a Taliban spokesman has denied responsibility, Kunduz is a unique part of Afghanistan with various militant groups operating in the same vicinity – from the Taliban to al Qaeda and the group Hizbi-Islami among others.
 
It’s not clear to officials who the perpetrators were.
 
“The enemies of this country don’t want the children of this country to be educated, but right now we don’t know what group this enemy was from,” said Sayed Karim Talash, the investigation officer from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
 
But the girls and teachers say they know who did it – they blame the Taliban.
 
“What have the girls done to these people?” Shafika Ghulamsakhi said with tears in her eyes. “They should be enemies with those who are their enemies.  Not us, a student, a teacher or a principal.  What right do they have to make us their enemy?  And perform this despicable act.”
 
Denied an education during the Taliban, Shafika knows all too well the pain of not being able to go to school.
 
She is now 20 years old and in the 9th grade.   And now she is reliving memories of darker days.  
 
“Would you believe that it’s been a week now that I haven’t wanted to come to class?” she said starting to sob.
 
But the girls of Khadija Kobra High School, including Shafika, say with time they will have their revenge.
 
“I want to be a lawyer,” she said.  “Just like they tried to poison us, I’m going to poison them but I’m not going to do it their way. I’m going to shame them with my words.  I want to banish them with my education.  It’s not necessary to just have poison to destroy someone.”
 
A week after the attack, 80 percent of the student body showed up to school, even though many families are afraid of sending their daughters back.
 
“There is fear in one's heart,” said the mother of one 16-year-old student, “when they go, thoughts rush through my head.  What if she goes and something happens again?”
 
Jamila Taj has three daughters who go to the high school.  And although she is scared for her children she believes the risk is worth her daughter getting an education.  
 
“They have to go to school and study so they can be of service to their country.  With girls, when these things happen, they have to go back,” she said.
 
And the girls and teachers agree.  They are the future of a land lost in war.  And if the militants don’t know that, at least the girls do.

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