KABUL, Afghanistan – Dozens of Afghan schoolgirls have fallen ill in recent days after reporting a strange odor in their classrooms in northern Afghanistan, prompting an investigation into whether they were targeted by militants who oppose education for girls or victims of mass hysteria.
Either way, the reports from three schools within 2 miles of one another in Kunduz province have raised alarm in a city threatened by the Taliban and their militant allies.
The latest cases occurred Sunday, when 13 girls became sick, Kunduz provincial spokesman Mahbobullah Sayedi said. Another 47 complained of dizziness and nausea the day before, and 23 fell ill last Wednesday.
All complained of a strange smell in class before they fell ill.
None of the illnesses was serious and the girls were only hospitalized for a short time. The Health Ministry said blood samples were inconclusive and were being sent to Kabul for further testing to determine the cause of the illnesses.
“This is a matter of concern not only for us but for the families,” Sayedi said, blaming the sicknesses on “enemies” who oppose education for girls.
In the capital of Kabul, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, said any attempt to keep girls out of school is a “terrorist act.”
Kunduz had been relatively quiet until a few years ago when Taliban activity began to increase, threatening NATO supply routes south from Central Asia. Late Saturday, NATO and Afghan troops killed one militant and detained several others in Kunduz province.
Girls were not allowed to attend school when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. The group was ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups have been known to target schoolgirls.
In one of the most chilling attacks, men on motorbikes sprayed acid from squirt guns and water bottles onto 15 schoolgirls and teachers in 2008 as they walked to a girls school in Kandahar, the southern city that is the spiritual birthplace of the militant movement.
Previous cases of sudden illness in schools have left families too frightened to send their daughters to school.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Sunday, hundreds of people blocked a main road in Logar province, west of Kabul, and burned several trucks to protest what they said were civilian deaths in NATO operations. They gathered hours after NATO said coalition troops killed several insurgents and captured a Taliban sub-commander.