Return of the torture victims

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Brendan O'Malley on the British boarding school master who has the task of helping teachers driven out by the horrors of Saddam's regime

Even the rigours of being a senior master at Haileybury could not prepare Charles Monk for the daily challenges he has encountered in the past six months in the heat and dust of Iraq, as the most senior education adviser in the south.

"We get teachers who are desperate to get back on to the payroll who suffered under Saddam. Some roll up their sleeves and show me the scars from torture and where they have been shot," said Monk.

As a member of the Territorial Army for 20 years and of its specialist Civilian Affairs Group since 1996, the 49-year-old was mobilised in June and catapulted from his job at the co-ed boarding school in Hertfordshire into the role of overseeing the rebuilding of schools and universities across war-torn southern Iraq, which is controlled by British troops.

"Our role is monitoring, supporting, advising and assisting the embryonic administration until they are ready for the hand-over of power," he said.

"In effect I am a regional education minister."

The first task was for battle groups to find out what schools existed, where they were, how many shifts they ran and what state they were in - not easy in a country where maps had been banned for so long under Saddam's dictatorship that officials did not know how to use them.

"They can take me there but they cannot look at a map and say this is where the school is," said Monk.

Many names had also been changed in the attempt to rid the nation of reminders of Ba'athist party rule following a decree by the ruling council in May. One in 10 schools was flattened in the war - many were used as bases by fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein.

The rest - around 3,000 in the south - have been deliberately starved of investment in the decade since this region rose up against the dictator after the first Gulf war in 1991. Monk estimates that 30 per cent of school-age children in the increased population have no school place.

"There are rural schools that are made of mud and reeds with no plumbing and electricity and providing for this will be a major campaign over several years," he said.

The defeat of Saddam created a new set of problems as teachers who had been dismissed by the old regime for political reasons came back from Iran and Saudi Arabia to claim their salary. They will help to replace teachers driven out by the "de-Baathification" process - 890 were fired in Basra.

Under the old regime people graduated and qualified and went on to the payroll whether or not there was an appointment for them. The 23,000 on salaries in Basra in April included many widows of teachers conscripted and killed in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

In July the payroll was frozen because monthly salary bills - $130 per teacher - were soaring as people returned to their former homes. The $3 million for Basra alone was delivered by Landrover and divided up on a dusty floor. Since then there has been a steady stream of complainants at the gates of Charles Monk's office trying to get back on the payroll and he has had the unenviable task of deciding who has a genuine case.

"One teacher had been tortured, hung up by a hook. He showed me how it ripped his stomach out. The wound was 30-40 cm long, a messy line, and showed clearly he had been ripped open," Monk said. "He has also been shot in the leg and shin so part of his calf was misshapen and you could see the entry and exit wounds. He was limping.

"Two of his brothers were hanged."

After the uprising by the majority Shia population in Basra in 1991 thousands were killed.

"It's difficult for us to appreciate how arbitrary the violence was here.

Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay were so psychotically violent that if you made the slightest transgression, perceived or real, you could find yourself tortured or your children killed in front of you. I heard story after story. They all felt they were owed something by the liberators, that they had a moral duty to support them."

The backlash against Ba'athists has been passionate - and violent: four teachers with alleged Ba'athist associations were murdered in November and December. Their bodies were found on rubbish dumps or in a river with their hands tied and a bullet hole in the back of the head.

Monk, married with three children, was called up via what he calls "intelligent mobilisation". The school was sounded out first to see if it was prepared to make the commitment. TA members who are called up are protected by the Reserve Forces Act which ensures they get their job or an equivalent on their return. Employers are compensated for loss of services.

Monk was due a sabbatical anyway after a 12-year "sentence" as house master and economics teacher and the school obliged.

So far, in the south, the British army has patched up 220 schools in "quick impact projects" designed to win hearts and minds. It has also handed out 1,824 repair grants of $500.

The United States government's aid organisation, USAID, has supplied some 15,000 chalkboards, 14,000 teachers' chairs, 5,000 teachers' desks, 30,500 student chairs with writing platforms and 209,000 student materials kits for the south.

But there is still much to be done. In October a Civilian Affairs assessment found one in two schools in Basra and three out of four elsewhere had received no help from aid organisations, the military or the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Monk says his training with special forces and years of experience in the TA has helped him to cope with traumatised teachers, the sound of gunfire on the streets at night and the constant threat of terror bombings. In one of the worst incidents, 18 Italian military personnel and 10 Iraqis were killed and more than 80 people injured in a bomb at Nasiriyah, just north of Basra.

After six months in Iraq, Monk will go back to Haileybury, set in 500 acres of leafy grounds, this term. But problems at school will never seem quite the same again.

"The contrast is so extraordinary between what we expect and have at home and what these poor students and teachers have to cope with and live through," he says.

"It's humbling to meet people who are struggling day to day and can't escape.

"I can at least go back to a comfortable life and school."

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