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Iraq: School Sees New Challenges, Old Problems, One Year Later

  • Charles Recknagel

Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, RFE/RL visited a school in Baghdad to learn how its teachers and students viewed the events. Now, as Iraq prepares for a sovereign post-Saddam government on 30 June, we returned to the school to ask again how much, or how little, life has changed.

Prague, 25 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When an RFE/RL correspondent first visited Baghdad's Ibn Khateb primary boys school a year ago, the school had just reopened after the end of major fighting in Iraq.

Correspondent Zamira Eshanova found "an atmosphere of uncertainty" permeating the school.

School officials told her that since U.S. troops had entered Baghdad in early April, only 80 of the school's 600 students had returned to class. That was because most children were still being kept at home by parents worried by the capital's precarious security situation.

Those children who did return found a school in the midst of dramatic change. There was a new headmaster. The portraits of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had disappeared from the walls. And the large amount of course work devoted to Saddam Hussein had been cut from the curriculum.

Still, old habits persisted. When our correspondent visited a fourth-grade classroom last May, the children shouted out their traditional greeting to school guests: "Long Live Saddam Hussein!"

One of the students, 12-year-old Mustafa, explained why: "We used to love him [Saddam Hussein] because he was our leader. He protected our nation. He didn't want occupation, and we still love him."

In the months since that visit, the school has continued to change. Most of the pupils have returned, the school has been partly renovated, and some of its most dilapidated furniture has been replaced.

Most noticeably, the students are using newly printed textbooks rushed out by Iraq's Education Ministry to supplement teaching materials that for years had been in short supply.

Ibn Khateb's new headmaster recently described the school's transformation: "When the school year started, there where no books. So what I did is have the students lend each other books, because the students are from the same neighborhood. [Education authorities] have brought us new books now. It's the same topics, but the books are printed in a better way. Most of the pictures [of Saddam] have been removed and any that [could not be because of their placement in the text] are taken out by the students. When [one student] saw a picture [of Saddam], it was like he was having a nightmare, and he started tearing it away."

The books are part of some 8 million textbooks reprinted under a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency also provided more than $6 million to repair some 2,300 schools as part of multimillion-dollar grants for education-related projects in central, southern, and northern Iraq this year.

Last week, the World Bank signed a separate $40-million grant agreement with the Iraqi Education Ministry to further print and distribute existing textbooks to make up remaining shortfalls before the next school year. The World Bank is also to fund development of a new curriculum meeting international educational standards.

The steps come after Iraq's education system -- once considered among the best in the Middle East -- deteriorated markedly in the 1980s as a result of official neglect amid three major wars and UN sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of children are reported to have dropped out of the school system altogether to help earn income for their families.

The World Bank said in a recent statement that "although schooling in Iraq was successfully resumed in September 2003 following the recent conflict, the education sector remains fragile and in urgent need of reform and rehabilitation."

The development bank says one-third of Iraqi men aged 15 and older -- and more than one-half of Iraqi women -- are illiterate. It says 40 percent of the country's schools are in need of "major rehabilitation" and almost 10 percent "in need of demolition or rebuilding."

But while Iraq's Education Ministry and international donors face a daunting reconstruction task, many teachers and students say their primary concern today is still getting to school safely.

Ibn Khateb's headmaster said he worries about conducting a normal school schedule as long as fighting continues to break out between U.S.-led coalition troops and insurgents. Fighting regularly occurs in some Baghdad neighborhoods, and there are occasional car bombings targeting Iraqis working with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

The headmaster described the stress of constantly worrying about security: "God help this generation [of students] because, because believe me, in the beginning, when I saw there was no security, I used to be afraid during the school hours. Something might happen and, if it does, it will be on my conscience. If there is an explosion in the yard, I will consider it my fault. I used to be always afraid. I used to tell the guards to search [all visitors], and I told the students what to do. For example, if you see a stranger, don't let him in but immediately inform me. And when you go home, go in groups, not alone."

Twelve-year-old Mustafa said he longs for bygone days when he and his friends could play free of worries about safety.

Mustafa told our correspondent that one year after Saddam's fall, he continues to regard the former dictator with nostalgia.

One reason is that the boy's father, a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army, now sits at home unemployed. Another is that his parents insist he be home by nightfall.

"There was a huge change during this year,” Mustafa said. “Before, we had security. We were not scared to go to the clubs that we used to go to, but where now we can't go. Before we came home at 2 a.m. Now, we can't anymore. We have to come back by 9:30 p.m. I miss those [old] days a lot. I wish those days would come back."

News reports say many parents kept their children at home during April's flare-up of violence. The crisis saw U.S. troops battling insurgents in the Sunni-majority city of Al-Fallujah and supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in several shrine cities in the south.

The fighting -- which now has mostly subsided -- represented the bloodiest single month for U.S. troops since the invasion began last March.

(Sami Alkhoja contributed to this report.)
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