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Schools Open, and First Test Is Iraqi Safety

by SAM DAGHERNY Times

October 12, 2008


BAGHDAD — On the first day of school, 10-year-old Basma Osama looked uneasy standing in formation under an already stifling morning sun. She and dozens of schoolmates listened to a teacher’s pep talk — probably a necessary one, given the barren and garbage-strewn playground.

“Security has returned to Baghdad, city of peace and land of pan-Arabism,” the teacher told the students, many as young as 5, who were loaded down with bright backpacks.

Basma’s mother, Hind Majid, who had just returned with her two daughters after a year in Egypt waiting out Iraq’s uncertainties, was not yet convinced about the security part.

“I am still fearful of the situation,” she said. “I have taken a gamble with my return to Iraq.”

It was certainly not the gamble it would have been a year ago, as calm has settled over ever-larger areas of Iraq. But still there are many reasons for worry: Only a few hours after Basma arrived, the school was evacuated when Iraqi commandos stormed in and warned that two women were planning suicide bombing attacks on schools in the area.

The first day of school feels like a fresh start everywhere, and Iraq’s six million schoolchildren returned to much more hope and far less violence this year.

But the start of school also seems an acute measure of one crucial part of Iraq’s overall improvement: whether uprooted families feel confident enough, after years of war, crime and sectarian bloodshed, to go back to their homes and old neighborhood schools. After all, few parents, if any, willingly expose their children to danger.

A tentative answer, from interviews in a half-dozen Baghdad neighborhoods, begins with a far greater feeling of safety. That is borne out by figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In August, the number of Iraqis who returned home from abroad or from internal displacement soared to 37,835, compared with 20,546 in July and 16,338 in June. Baghdad and Diyala Province, just to the north, account for more than 90 percent of them.

Millions remain displaced, and in September the pace slowed, with 23,821 returning to their homes. But the monthly average for the 10 months beginning in August 2007, according to the United Nations figures, had been only about 11,000.

Even for those who come back to Iraq from outside the country, there still seems much reluctance to return to their homes if they fled sectarian violence, particularly in areas that were mixed Sunni and Shiite.

And so the opening of school, which for most Baghdad children was in October, is also a measure of how deeply the city’s sectarian map was redrawn in the violence of 2006 and 2007.

Ms. Majid, for example, is a Shiite married to a Sunni, and she was willing to return this year from Egypt, but she drew the line at returning to Saydia, the southern neighborhood she had fled, which was one of the main battlegrounds for sectarian feuds. She now lives with her parents in Amel, a mainly Shiite area that was once more mixed.

Over all, the sentiment around Baghdad seemed a mix of hope and anxiety, which together translated into endless calculations and complex compromises: Should the whole family return, or just the adults? Is it wise to reclaim a home in a previously mixed neighborhood? Or might it be better to find a new one in an area dominated by one’s own sect, and dare again to trust neighbors enough to contemplate a basic act like letting a child walk to school alone?

Complicating the choices, many schools in the heart of Baghdad are overcrowded, understaffed and in ruins, lacking some basic infrastructure, like classroom benches and clean drinking water.

In the southern city of Basra, more parents are opting this year to enroll their children in better-run private schools, despite the steep costs.

“School is probably the most important institution that needs to be re-established for the return to normalcy,” said Maj. Tom Nelson, an American engineering officer in Baghdad.

The American military seems to be bearing the brunt of costs associated with rebuilding and equipping schools. It has spent more than $85 million since October 2006 in Baghdad alone. Major Nelson’s unit of the 101st Airborne Division has spent $6.7 million in recent months on schools in northwestern Baghdad, more than double the Iraqi government’s $2.6 million.

The Kifah elementary public school in Fadhil, a central Baghdad neighborhood that until recently was among the most dangerous, got from the American military a power generator, air-conditioners in every classroom and a bright blue paint job. Bordering the building, though, there remains a swamp of sewage.

And notwithstanding the American help, the principal, Awatef Fadhel, said she could not get money from the district Board of Education to run the new generator, let alone hire a guard, a janitor and replacements for the teachers who fled Fadhil.

The Iraqi education minister, Khudayr al-Khuzai, said the nation’s schools have been in shambles since the mid-1980s as a result of wars and international sanctions. Now that the security situation is better, he said, the government will embark on a multibillion-dollar program of renovations and building over the next four years.

“I do not think we have serious problems,” he said. “The most serious problem is when the lives of students and teachers were being threatened.”

United Nations officials say it is critical that the Iraqi government act quickly and be less bureaucratic in helping the returning refugees, including providing adequate education and schools. Experts hope improvements in schools will reinforce the idea that neighborhoods are safer, so that still more people will return.

“Nothing is irreversible,” Andrew Harper, who is in charge of the Iraq desk in the Office of the High Commissioner, said, referring to the current calm. “We need to do things quickly and hit it while the iron is hot.”

In the heart of Huriya, a sprawling working-class neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad ripped apart by reprisal killings and displacement, a sewage pool consumes half the playground of the Wasit elementary school for girls.

Zahra Saheb, the school’s principal, conceded that progress toward normalcy had been limited. The school, which has 560 students, had lost nearly 50 students when Sunnis fled Huriya, and only three daughters of recently returned families have registered. “A lot of blood was spilled here,” Ms. Zaheb said.

Almost no day goes by without reports of the acts against families returning to homes they had fled. Many encounter graffiti warning them not to stay, and some are threatened with bombs and grenades. Some meet a fate like that of a Shiite man who was killed late last month shortly after going back to his home in the now mainly Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliya.

Saleh Mahdi and his family returned this fall from Syria, after an absence of more than two years. On Monday he was registering his daughter Baraa at al-Amal high school in Amel.

Mr. Mahdi, a Shiite, owns a house in Ghazaliya but recently rented a new one in Amel. He went back to check on his Ghazaliya home a few days ago and learned that a neighbor had been strangled with a bag, his body dumped on the street.

At the Amal school on Monday, almost 50 students were crammed into a stuffy and dusty math classroom. For them, sectarian polarization is a part of life. The subject is broached in a matter-of-fact manner, often lacking in the passionate discourse of older generations.

“We moved to Amel because it is a Shiite area now and the closest to Dora,” said Hawra Kadhim, 18, referring to her native neighborhood in southern Baghdad, until recently one of the city’s most violent areas.

Although some Shiites have recently returned to their schools and homes in Dora, Ms. Kadhim said this was not a proposition her family would be contemplating any time soon.

In Dolaie, an impoverished neighborhood roiled by violence that tipped the scale in favor of Shiite militiamen loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, the principal of an elementary school rejected outright the return of Sunni families.

“When you kill me and harm me, why should you come back and live with me?” said Razzaq Darwish, the principal. “How would you expect me to react?”

In the meantime, Mr. Darwish’s school is falling apart, and overwhelmed by the children of almost 4,000 Shiite refugee families who have settled in the Chukouk camp nearby.

The roof is caving in, classroom floors and hallways are stripped bare, and in the playground a pile of burnt trash was smoldering. His school, which has 1,300 students attending in two shifts, is being temporarily consolidated with a nearby school.

In another part of town, in the once upscale and leafy Mutanabi section of Mansour, the situation is so dire at a local elementary school, called Intifada, that there are not enough classroom benches. Teachers must bring their own chairs from home. Piles of uncollected trash fester behind the building. The street in front of the school was where Sunni extremists, who formerly controlled the area, deposited bodies of people they had killed.

“We had doctors and engineers here; now it’s people from all over,” said Jassim al-Nuaimi, who leads the local citizen patrol, which is part of the nationwide, and mainly Sunni, Awakening security movement.

He said the Shiite-led government was punishing his neighborhood because it is predominantly Sunni Arab. An estimated 70 mothers who live in the area lost their husbands in acts of violence over the past few years, he said.

Back in Amel, Ms. Majid’s brother Hussein is trying to stitch back together and heal an entire neighborhood shattered by sectarian violence and displacement.

He has just become principal of the Amel high school for boys, which until recently was controlled by Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The previous assistant principal, a Sunni, was assassinated in November 2006, and most Sunni students left.

“There was a civil war,” Mr. Majid said. “Why should we lie about it?”

The school was occupied until May by a Kurdish unit of the Iraqi Army. The soldiers vandalized classrooms, twisted ceiling fans and ripped out electrical cables. Mortar explosions punctured the walls with holes.

Mr. Majid, however, has already received a pledge of almost $670,000 from the United States military to rebuild the school. Standing in its crumbling courtyard, he fantasized about reviving the theater, stocking a library and holding poetry readings.

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Basra.

Copyright 2008The New York Times Company

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