Schools have begun reopening in southern Iraq for the first time in over a month.
On Sunday, in the country's second-largest city, Basra, children started trickling back to the schools they had abandoned in mid-March as war loomed. At Al-Fajr al-Jadid Primary School in central Basra, 20 pupils returned; from a school roll of 600, this may seem barely worth recording, except for the fact that it represents the start of a long process of rebuilding the country’s education system, which has been in a state of decline for over a decade.
The school’s 25 teachers hope that as word spreads that the school is open again, more children will feel comfortable about returning. Even if not much teaching takes place, the teachers want to begin restoring the children’s trust inasmuch as the Iraqi army used many schools as bases during the war.
One of the teachers, Thaka Muhammad Bakr, said that in Basra the war had badly frightened the children, and many now cried on hearing any noise. "Their education has been disturbed. The children have forgotten what they were taught, and we will have to revise what they had before," she said.
While schools in northern Iraq reopened more than a week ago, the south has struggled to restore even basic institutions. With no government to organise education or pay teachers, and many schools hit by looting, bored children have been left to their own devices on the streets of Basra and other cities and towns.
The Save the Children’s spokeswoman for southern Iraq, Nicole Amoroso, said from Kuwait City that even if schools could not formally reopen, it was important to organise areas where children could gather. For some children it was the second war they had experienced, and there would be considerable trauma for them to overcome. Moreover, such matters as landmine awareness training would have to be attended to, Amoroso said.
While many schools in the south will reopen, damage to buildings and difficulties over getting teachers to return are two reasons why some schools may be unable to do so before the official school year ends in June. This raises the danger of the country's education system remaining crippled for even longer.
Even before the war, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that Iraq was short of 5,000 primary schools, and 8,000 existing ones were in desperate need of repair. Because of overcrowding, many children attended school for only two to three hours a day instead of six, and more than 25 percent of children did not go to school at all.
But as the girls at Al-Fajr al-Jadid Primary School filed back to their rough wooden desks and chairs, their enthusiasm at being back at school was overwhelming. The first lesson was on magnetism, and each question was greeted by children springing to their feet, arms raised high in a chorus of hisses as they tried to attract the teacher’s attention to be allowed to give the answer.
Inside the desks, bits of very dry bread, biscuit wrappers and shrivelled orange peel indicated how long it had been since the classroom was occupied. For 12-year-old Hanin Adnan, it was definitely time to get back to school. "I like school, I like studying, and I missed school. When I heard we were going back to school it made me very, very happy."
Amal Jabir, whose 10-year-old daughter, Rafel, also returned to school on Sunday, said she was overjoyed to hear classes were resuming. "What has happened in these days? There was no education, and I was very worried."
In every classroom a black and white photograph of Saddam Husayn hangs just above the blackboard, and at the centre of every one of the children's drawings which line the hallways there is also a picture of Saddam. Thaka said all the books used at the school contained reverential statements about Saddam, and these were the same books they would now be using again.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions