The Day Iraq Learned Saddam Was Captured

Dec 25, 2003 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Christina Asquith


The Sunday morning before the world learned of Saddam’s capture, I was listening to three Baghdad University professors-a geologist, a chemist and a physicist-discuss improving the science department after three decades of Baath Party rule. The U.S. government was interested in helping them, and possibly offering millions of dollars in grants. In small, untelevised ways across Iraq, the rebuilding of the education system is happening–with or without Saddam. These scientists are in their 60s, Saddam’s age, and as he heads off to prison, they are finally free to use their knowledge for noble purposes– first and foremost to take all Iraqi scientists formerly working in weapons research, and retrain them for humanitarian work. The physics professor proposed desalination and solar energy projects, while the others talked about cleaning the air. No one knew yet that Saddam had been captured, but it hardly mattered. A man made infamous for tearing things down is a man easily forgotten. These men were talking about rebuilding.

When I arrived at the house I share with seven other journalists in the Jadriya suburban neighborhood of Baghdad at 1:30 pm, an Iranian news agency was reporting Saddam Hussein had been captured. It was not the first time a source claimed Saddam’s demise. “It’s just a rumor,” said a housemate, a reporter for an English newspaper. We ignored it. Fifteen minutes later, we heard loud gunfire in the streets. Then, car horns. Iraqis celebrate by shooting into the air and driving up and down the street-sometimes at the same time-so we knew something was happening. Then, we all received a mysterious email from the media office of the U.S. government announcing an immediate press conference, but not saying with whom or why. That was the tip off. Suddenly, everyone was racing for a notebook, passport, sneakers. If it was true, this was the biggest story out of Iraq since the fall of Baghdad 8 months earlier. Everyone was shouting “Let’s go.” Four reporters squeezed into the back of a driver’s Mercedes and screeched down the street to Saddam’s presidential palace complex, site of the press conference.

“Ladies and Gentleman, We got him.” Those three words turned the normally solemn press room upside down. The Iraqi reporters sitting next to me leapt out of their chair. “Death to Saddam.” “Long live Iraq.” US Amb. Bremer showed the video of Saddam being checked by a U.S. military doctor. The image of Saddam after eight long months, blinking in fear, bearded like a fugitive and being handled like a horse flashed before us. My heart dropped. There was the face forced into every child’s textbook and plastered across the wall of so many schools; the man who had almost gutted the university system, abandoned the schools of Shi ite children, humiliated the dignity of so many professors and robbed teachers of their ability to survive by paying them 20 cents a day. Back in the U.S., many hear about the mass graves. But it was the smaller stories of indignation culled over three months of reporting that stuck in my mind. The university professor who was threatened daily by students who were Baath Party goons. The slumped shoulders of the President of Basra university Dr. Salman D. Salman; a man whose campus had just been looted and destroyed beyond recognition-a man losing hope of every returning to what 30 years of Saddam had taken from him. The Iraqi reporters at the press conference didn’t feign objectivity. They took to their feet and screamed at that televised face. When one Iraqi reporter finished, he crumpled back into his seat in sobs before 300 of his colleagues-reporters from The New York Times, CBS, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune-who watched in silence. This brief moment changed the tone of the press conference. I came the closest yet to understanding the anguish, humiliation and terror that was Saddam’s strongest weapon. I know the images on television showed mostly Iraqis cheering. But I don’t doubt that throughout Iraq, in bedrooms, classrooms and science labs there was a lot of grieving that day.

After the press conference, I drove 15 minutes from Saddam’s plush presidential complex to the dirt-poor Baghdad neighborhood called Sadr City. On the way, I saw a few scenes of celebration- a small street party with trumpets and drums, truckloads of men cheering- but most Iraqs are thoughtful, mannered people not easily given to loud outbursts and mob scenes. Sadr City is a predominantly Shi’ te area, so Saddam, who was Sunni, deliberately let it wallow. Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s boasted high numbers of primary school enrollment and literacy. Today, most schools here are just chilly cement walls, yellowed, broken windows and cracked tiles. I asked some children what school would be like the following day. “I will dance,” said one 11 year old Hut Estaq. Ahmed Aheza stood nearby. He is 10 years old, born just after Saddam invasion of Kuwait which prompted UN sanctions that forced many children out of the schools to work. “What will you say tomorrow to your teacher?” I asked Ahmed, who was clutching an aluminum bucket. “I don’t go to school,” he said, smiling nonetheless. He works for his father, hauling gasoline up and down the dusty highway. Saddam’s capture held little significance to him. It’s come too late.

The men and women who are now in their late 50s and 60s are the only ones old enough to really remember an Iraq before Baath Party rule; before the texts and curriculum was rewritten by the Baath Party; back when the search for truth was an integral aspects of education. Schools today are staffed by teachers in their 30s and 40s who know nothing other than Saddam’s Iraq. It is always the professors schooled in the 1950s and 1960s in the belief that Iraq higher education was about to blossom, who know how far the education system has fallen, and who can offer a vision for the future. These educators have the largest task now to lead the rebuilding not only of the schools, but of the culture of education that was so strong here in ancient Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Many of these senior professors had escaped Saddam’s rule and now live in the US and England. But they are coming together on a website www.Iraqhighereducation.com with offers of help their countrymen. One Iraqi professor said to me: ‘I think Iraqis will soon forget Saddam because when you tear something down, there’s nothing left to remember you.” After 30 years of tearing down, these Iraqis scientists are now free to build again. Long after I’ve left Iraq, they will be the ones I remember.

Christina Asquith has written about education for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sports Illustrated and The UK Guardian. She recently finished her first book, The Paper School, about her first year as an emergency certified teacher in a tough school in North Philadelphia.

 

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