A Swiss-initiated project aimed at transferring science and practical know-how to people in the devastated Bamiyan region of Afghanistan has opened its doors.
The House of Science, financed and designed by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is part of efforts to rebuild this war-torn area at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains.
Bamiyan is well known for its Buddha statues which were destroyed by Islamic militants in 2001 for being un-Islamic. The move caused an outcry around the world.
The war-torn region has been trying to rebuild itself, but it needs to train its young people for the task.
This is where the House of Science comes in. Built from a design by students from the Institute of Technology, it offers a lecture hall, seminar rooms and a high-tech computer centre. There are also residences for guest teachers.
The campus, which is linked to the university at Bamiyan, was handed over to the Afghan higher education minister at the end of last year.
"Students from Switzerland and Afghanistan have already shown interest in spending some time studying here," Albert Stahel, the driving force behind the project, told swissinfo.
According to the security expert, who used to teach at both the institute and Zurich University, the campus is ready to start teaching in earnest. A few seminars have already taken place.
Currently there is not enough money to take on many students and teachers, but Stahel says he is not too worried about the situation continuing.
With good reason it would seem – the principal fundraiser is former institute president Olaf Kübler, who already supported the project during his tenure.
Teaching at the House of Science focuses on what is needed: agriculture and construction. The Bamiyan valley is among the most fertile in Afghanistan, but there is still a great need for infrastructure.
Also high on the agenda is water management and economics, as well as political and cultural sciences.
The training of teachers is also considered very important, but teachers have been the targets of recent attacks by militants.
Stahel, an Afghanistan expert who has visited the county around 20 times, says this is due to the mostly Taliban militants regaining in strength. He believes, however, that in several areas, there is also a real opposition to education.
But he is not worried about the House of Science. "The Bamiyan province is very quiet, because the ethnic minority Hazara live there, who are Shi'ites and not Sunnis like the Taliban," he said.
The peaceful and open-minded nature of the long persecuted Hazara was one of the main reasons for choosing Bamiyan, Stahel explained.
Another reason was Bamiyan's role as a former centre of Buddhism. "The destruction of both large Buddha statues in 2001 also played a role," he added.
Stahel says that he has been told by the Afghan authorities that the institute's contribution to region has been greatly appreciated.
The fact that Switzerland is a neutral country which promotes human rights means that the Afghans are also keen to forge political ties. Added to this is Switzerland's policy of offering its good offices – for example representing the interests of a foreign state or organising international conferences.
Stahel is therefore lobbying Bern to invite the Afghan head of parliament to Switzerland, which despite his good connections is proving to be tricky.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to returning to the Hindu Kush mountains, "God willing, in the second half of February, to check on the final work being done in Bamiyan."
swissinfo, Renat Künzi
Sixty-three-year-old Albert Stahel taught for 26 years at the Military Academy at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He later taught at Zurich University.
He is also the founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Wädenswil near Zurich, where he puts the focus on independent research.
In 2005 he founded the "Humanitarian Switzerland" forum which is aimed at strengthening Switzerland's reputation in humanitarian matters.
He is a guerrilla war specialist and has been interested in Afghanistan since 1980.
Swiss efforts in Afghanistan
The House of Science project has been carried out by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in cooperation with Bamiyan University.
The Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC) also supports the project to the tune of almost SFr10 million a year.
Switzerland also support de-mining efforts and four Swiss officers are involved in the United Nations-mandated international security assistance force (ISAF).
The Federal Institute is also involved in the reconstruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, having made a 3D computer reconstruction.
A Swiss, Christian Frei, has also made a documentary, The Giant Buddhas.
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