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Afghan girls are eager students

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KABUL, Afghanistan — She's excited and, like new students everywhere, a little nervous. Sixteen-year-old Aroosa is back in school for the first time in five years, picking up where she left off when the Taliban rolled into Kabul five years ago.

The lanky sixth-grader doesn't mind that most of her classmates are younger than she is, some only 11. She's just happy to be out of the shadows again, having spent the last five years mostly at home because, as well as banning education for girls after the age of eight, the Taliban restricted their movement.

"I lost my education. I lost my childhood," she said.

The Taliban, whose name means "students," began as religious vigilantes committed to ridding this war-wrecked land of banditry and lawlessness. After taking power, they imposed a strict form of Islam. Among their rules, Afghans were forbidden to listen to music, watch television, admire artwork. Men had to wear beards, while women were banned from most work and from going to school.

Aroosa arrived for her first day back at school Sunday wearing her pride and joy — a pair of used jeans she painstakingly adorned with tiny silver beads on the hem and a delicately embroidered design.

As her friends crowded around her, pushing and giggling, she explained how she celebrated the end of the Islamic regime. "I went out and bought these jeans," she said.

The all-girls school opened last week with about 800 students, said school director Fatima Rizai.

Hidden behind a row of houses, the school is perched on a slight incline. There was no protection against the chilly winter morning. But the students didn't seem to mind as they packed 25 and 30 to a room. The small ones raced across the rocky school grounds to their classrooms.

In the small, dimly lit classrooms, eager students crouched on the floor, balancing notebooks on their knees. Two friends shared one of the few chairs.

On a small, cracked blackboard, the teacher wrote the English alphabet, and her students, all girls over 12, repeated each letter. Light streamed through a small opening high in the wall. Cold penetrated the bare cement floor.

Deba, 8, played with her brown crocheted scarf and pondered for a few minutes before deciding what she wanted to be when she finishes school.

"I think I will be an engineer," she said — an unusual preference for girls in Afghanistan, who almost invariably pick doctor or teacher.

"I think if I am an engineer I can make new buildings and make my country new again."