One Year On: Students Live in Freedom and Fear

Mar 23, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad- Little 3-year old Meena was supposed to be a member of Baghdad’s kindergarten class 2004, the first generation of students to graduate into a liberated, free Iraq. But her father decided last October that it was safer to keep her in the house.

Christina Asquith

“It is too dangerous,” says her father, Tharwat Al-Ani, a former Iraqi television anchorman. “If the situation doesn’t get better, I will keep her home next year as well.”

One year after the U.S.-led invasion and parents are weighing educational accomplishments brought by the Americans with the wave of insecurity and terror that often makes it impractical for them to enjoy the advancements.

The improvements are many, including thousands of schools refurbished, a modernized school administration, new textbooks, teachers trained and millions in aid from the World Bank (see below for details from USAID).

However, for most Iraqi teachers, administrators and parents, fear still dominates any educational discussion. In the last year, scores of teachers and administrators have been killed. Bomb threats are made daily against buildings. Coils of barbed wire and tree trunks stretch around schools. Even with the two armed guards hired by the Ministry to protect each school, some headmasters have shifted janitors and secretaries into security positions.

Most say schools have been caught in the crossfire of the general anarchy reigning-and worsening-in Iraq. Kidnapping is parent’s biggest concern.

“They’re worried about theft of school materials, but mostly their worried about the safety of the kids,” said Hind Rassam Culhane, the Education senior advisor on the RISE Project.

The threat has shifted over the last year. Immediately after the war, a wave of death threats and assassinations swept through all sectors of Iraqi society, and many teachers and headmasters who were high ranking Baath Party member were killed. Many new administrators were also murdered, either for cooperating with the Americans or helping to push out Baathists. (See Ednews column of Dec2 nd )

More recently, as unemployment rises, refurbished schools say they are becoming the targets of break ins and robberies precisely because they are the recipients of aid.

Each school in Baghdad is supposed to be protected by two security guards, who work for the FPS Force Protection Services, contracted by the Ministry of Education, but most say it’s not enough.

American bases are scattered around the outskirts of Baghdad, and charged with maintaining security in the neighborhoods, however most Iraqis say their presence is low, they are slow to respond and Iraqis have no way of contacting them.

“The Americans usually only visit the girls’ secondary school,” said Arkan Jassam, a security guard for the Abi Hanifah primary school.”They enter to look at the girls. They’ll say ‘what do you need?’ ‘We want to help.’ But they never go to the boys school.”

At the Abi Hanifah primary school, headmistress Isdihar Ali starts the day by searching every classroom in the entire school for an explosive. She’s put padlocks on the doors. Outside, the two guards share a pistol and a kalashnikov rifle.

“I go straight home after work. I don’t go out. I can’t see relatives or friends,” Isdihar Ali says. “There’s nothing we can do but hope things will get better.”

Most say a general lack of security is the biggest problem, and there is no broad, coordinated effort to attack education or educators, as has taken place against the Iraqi police and Iraqi translators working with Westerners.

Schools have so far flown under the radar of the terrorists, who having increasingly been striking “soft targets” in a supposed effort to wreak havoc and derail the U.S. efforts here. In November, a highly publicized bomb threat closed the schools for a day, but nothing happened. A Christian publication reported bombs were found in Christian school in Baghdad and in Mosul, but this has not been confirmed.

Many schools receive bomb threats, but some headmasters say it is student pranks. Teachers say schools have found bombs, but this is difficult to confirm as most incidents not get reported for fear of causing a panicked exodus of the school system.

At a secondary school in the Al Rusafa school district in Baghdad, guard officer Favil Abdul Hassan found a thermal bomb wrapped in a black nylon bag in the courtyard. The perpetrator had surrounded the bomb with 21 anti-aircraft bullets, designed to scatter upon explosion to cause maximum injury to children playing in the courtyard.

In other nearby schools, officer Hassan said he has found Katusha Missiles in the courtyard that weren’t intended to hurt children, but only to scare them away.

“We don’t even tell the parents about it because they are intended to prevent the Iraqi students from going to school and cause chaos,” Hassan said.

Officer Hassan also fought off armed robbers a month earlier, and said that once a group of men broke into the school courtyard at night, tied up the guard and used the school courtyard to launch several mortars at an American base.

Headmistress Isdihar Ali, like most Iraqis, is increasingly worried about what will happen after July 1 st , when the Americans withdraw. She is counting on the Americans to hand over a secured nation. “It is our only hope for the students,” she says.

FYI: Below is an excerpt of the educational section in the USAID’s Accomplishments Report, May 2003-March 2004.


· Rehabilitated 2,351 schools countrywide for the first term of the 2003/04 school year.

· Printed and distributed 8,759,260 revised math and science textbooks for grades 1-12.

· Distributed 1,494,513 Secondary School kits including distributions in non-permissive areas.

· Distributed 159,005student desks, 26,437 teacher desks, 61, 500 chalkboards, 58,100 teacher kits, 59,940 teacher chairs and 26,050 metal cabinets including distributions in non-permissive areas.

· Distributed 808,000 primary student kits and 81,735 primary teacher kits.

· The Coalition has awarded 627 grants worth more than $6.06 million to rehabilitate schools and equip Directorates General.

· 32,632 teaching and administrative staff has been trained through USAID’s Training of Trainers Education Program, which concluded on February 16.   This program began in September 2003 and initially trained 860 master trainers (57 in September and 803 in November).  Selected graduates of the program conducted training nation-wide in February 2004 for 31,772 secondary school teaching and administrative staff.

· More than 600 children have returned to the classrooms through the Accelerated Learning Program and completed mid-year exams. Female attendance was higher than male’s – and overall attendance during exam week was 97%.

· Five grants worth $20.7 million were awarded to create partnerships between U.S. and Iraqi universities.

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