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Basra University trashed by looters

[Iraq] A torn painting at Basra University.
A torn painting painting at Basra University (Mike White)

Haytham Zuhayr had a dream of working overseas, maybe at a university, maybe as a translator, maybe writing. But the dreams of this second-year English language student at Basra University now litter the floors of the lecture rooms he used to sit in.

A walk through any building at the university is a trip into an academic nightmare, with everything trashed or burnt, with frantic students and lecturers desperately trying to pick up the pieces. Even as they try to salvage what they can, looters are still at work, sifting through what remains and even cutting down the surrounding trees for firewood.

For Haytham, it's a personal disaster. With final exams due on 25 May, he now wonders what will happen. "I feel sad - very depressed - because all my study this year may be lost," he said as he walked slowly through the debris, sadly picking up books such as "Alice In Wonderland", and a biography of Bertrand Russell.

University staff are due to meet this week to see if anything can be done to get students back to their classes in time for exams this year. But given the scale of the destruction, it seems unlikely that they will succeed.

Zahra Nasir was an assistant teacher of English linguistics, but stopped going to work when the war began. On Sunday she returned to the university for the first time to find everything stolen, destroyed or burnt. "I'm very disappointed and very sad. But it's no use thinking about the past, we must think about the future and how we can fix this," she said, conceding it was very difficult to be positive and see a real future.

She hoped a new government would help rebuild the university, but noted that nobody knew who could do this, or when. In the meantime, she was helping other staff and students take the books remaining in the library to mosques for safekeeping. A PhD student about to start her thesis, Zahra now finds herself with neither a place to work nor reference books to study.

Nur Sabah, a 28-year-old computer-engineering student, was in her second year at the university. Now there are no classes or computers. "How am I supposed to work? I don't even have the Internet," she asserted.

Meanwhile, at the university's Academy of Fine Arts, Dr Karim Humaydi al-Ruba'i gets up from his hands and knees, and pulls a dusty surgical mask from his face. He has spent the morning trying to clean one room of the dozens completely trashed by looters. "Look what happened. Even now, stealing," he said.

"What am I meant to do? What did we do [to deserve] this?" As he walks from room to room, stepping over upturned easels, smashed plaster sculptures, strewn photo negatives and torn paintings, he repeats a mantra of misery.

Desperate for the world to know what has happened, he appeals to anyone to tell the story of the university's destruction.

The lecturer of art said that there was no chance that the 400 students in his department could now complete their studies this year, and had no idea when classes could begin gain. "Everything finished, everything made rubbish. We want a future, but now no future - I don't see it.”

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

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