Teachers Under fire

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
All over the world, men and women who teach are being attacked. They are influential and prominent - and targets for beatings, torture and murder.

Susan Young reports on how you can help

Imagine a world where you could be tortured for belonging to a union, flogged for a lesson you taught, and murdered for simply being a teacher.

And then imagine the most horrific sort of murder: being beheaded, or burned to death, in front of your pupils.

Unfortunately, you don't need to imagine any of this. For too many teachers in too many countries, such horrors are a fact of life. Last year alone, hundreds were murdered, forced into hiding or exile, or arrested (and sometimes tortured) on spurious charges. In Britain and the West, teaching is generally a safe profession - apart from rare occasions when individuals with a grudge or angry pupils go for a high-profile target, which schools undoubtedly are.

In other parts of the world, teachers too often lose their lives or liberty just for doing their job. Sometimes they are targeted by terrorists or rebels, sometimes they are victims of a ruthless government desire for control.

"Teachers working under such conditions risk their lives daily to offer a better future to their young charges. No effort must be spared in providing them with a secure and safe environment," says Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund.

The organisation has commissioned a special report into violence against teachers, to be published in April. The idea is to define different types of violence - political or that in a conflict situation - and to look at who the main targets are and what impact it has, with a view to suggesting what needs to be done.

It is difficult to prove that the world is becoming a more hostile place for teachers, but anecdotally it seems to be true. It is almost 11 years since a British teacher was murdered doing her job. Gwen Mayor died with 16 of her young pupils when Thomas Hamilton, who believed he was being prevented from running a boys' club, burst into Dunblane Primary School in Scotland and began shooting.

Overseas, it is a different story. Hundreds have been killed in the same time.

Unsurprisingly, Iraq is the most dangerous place to teach. At least 500 teachers have been killed in the past two years - including a secondary teacher who was beheaded in front of his pupils when terrorists attacked the school. Up to 100 have been kidnapped, and 3,250 are believed to have fled Iraq since the US-led invasion.

Ali Ahmed Sindal, an English teacher working near Basra, spent four years on death row in Abu Ghraib prison. He was sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein in 1984 for opposing the IranIraq war. He says: "We were tortured from morning to night. I can't described what happened, I just want to forget it." Mr Sindal was released without explanation after four years and went into exile, teaching in other Arab states such as Yemen and Libya, spending a total of 10 years away from his wife and four children. He has now returned to Iraq and is helping to rebuild the education system, working as an inspector.

Mr Sindal has also been a key player in rebuilding the Iraqi teachers'

union and he was among 10 representatives visiting the UK this week as guests of the NASUWT teaching union.

There have also been terrorist murders in Afghanistan, Russia, Southern Thailand - where last November a teacher was shot and burned to death in front of his pupils - and Nepal.

In Saudi Arabia two teachers were sentenced to prison and flogging - 750 lashes for one man, 300 for another - for the lessons they taught. And in many other nations, including Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, teachers have been intimidated, arrested and even tortured by their governments for belonging to an independent union. Three union leaders in Ethiopia are believed to be in custody, and at risk of torture.

"It's not accidental," says Jan Eastman, deputy general secretary of Education International, a grouping of worldwide teacher unions. Teachers and schools are targeted because of the unique - and complex - role they play in society. In times of conflict, schools symbolise normality: disrupting them means disrupting that.

"Attacking schools and teachers means you are undermining the foundations of a stable society. Institutions help to create a sense of normality and progress," says Sue Wallace of Unicef. Some schools are attacked for maximum publicity, as in the Beslan school siege in 2004. This, and the September 11 attacks, sparked fears that schools in the West might become terrorist targets. However, most violent attacks in schools in North America and Europe are committed by disaffected pupils or individuals with a grudge.

Teachers are targets because they are educated, therefore influential, and can be threatening to their governments and to insurgents. They are also moulding the next generation, so governments and opposition alike want to be in control.

"The power of the teacher voice is important," says Jan Eastman. "Teachers have huge capacity to start social change and that's pretty scary for some governments, especially fledgling ones which haven't quite taken steps towards real democracy where people are allowed to speak out and freely associate with others. Strong governments in a democratic society don't have to worry to the same degree.

"Teachers grouped together can argue and speak up for public education, for society to improve, for access for all children to high quality education.

If teachers are speaking with one voice it's a strong one."

What can you do to help? Get involved, says Jan. Education International and Amnesty International highlight campaigns on their websites, making it easy for you to write protest letters.

"The smallest of actions can make a difference when it's cumulative.

Globalisation can work for us, giving us the power to connect with each other," says Jan.

"People are in dire situations in some countries and refusing to be too overwhelmed to fight and survive. It makes me very, very humble."



Latest figures from the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs show that 180 teachers have been killed in Iraq in the past 12 months, taking the figure up to at least 500 since 2005. Up to 100 more have been kidnapped. A total of 3,250 teachers are believed to have fled Iraq since the US-led invasion.


At least 20 teachers were killed in Taliban attacks last year, and 198 schools burned down. The Taliban is targeting female teachers and girls'

schools. Other attacks may come from tribal disputes. Safia Ama Jan, a teacher, died in a hail of bullets as she left for work on September 25.


Three Ethiopian Teachers Association officers are believed to be in custody and to have been tortured. Tilahun Ayalew, Anteneh Genet and Meqcha Mengitsu are the subject of urgent appeals by Education International and Amnesty International.

Last year, hundreds of teachers were arrested or sacked for failing to show support for the government.


Secret police seized radios given to members of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe in December. Raymond Majongwe, its general secretary, has been arrested twice. The second time, "I was tortured with electric shocks to my genitals, arms, mouth, fingers and toes." He says more than 100,000 teachers had suffered human rights abuses and that teachers have been tortured, raped and killed.


Teachers are arrested and tortured for holding political or academic views not in line with the regime, says Abdurahman Hassan Warsame, vice-president of the Somalia National Union of Teachers.

"Now teachers work literally under fire," he wrote in an article last June.

"There are daily casualties in the teaching ranks. As I write this article, there is renewed fighting in Mogadishu. Six teachers and 11 students have either died or been seriously injured in the latest spell of violence."

Saudi Arabia

Muhammad al-Harbi, a Saudi chemistry teacher, was sentenced to more than three years in prison and 750 lashes in November 2005 for talking to pupils about his views on topics such as Christianity, Judaism, and the causes of terrorism. He was charged with blasphemy and "trying to sow doubt in a student's creed".


Armed insurgents shot and burned to death Non Saisuwan, a 48-year-old teacher, last November in front of terrified staff and pupils. Separatist insurgents in southern Thailand had killed five teachers, injured at least two teachers and set two schools on fire since the start of term on November 1. Since 2004, 44 teachers have been killed. Primary teachers are being taught how to shoot.


Maoist insurgents have targeted schools. Scores of teachers were executed by the rebels in 2002 for singing the national anthem and teaching Sanskrit. There were many abductions last year.


Twenty-two teachers were killed after Chechen Muslim terrorists took more than 1,200 pupils and adults hostage at School Number One at Beslan on September 1, 2004.

Sri Lanka

At least three people killed and 10 teenagers injured when Tamil Tigers shelled a school and nearby area in December.


Teachers demanding better pay and financial help for poorer pupils went on strike last year, occupying the centre of Oaxaca. When police tried to remove the protesters, four people are reported to have died.

United States

A teacher was among 13 people shot dead at Columbine School in Colorado in April 1999. The teenage killers then killed themselves. In April 2003, the headteacher of a Pennsylvania school was killed by a 14-year-old pupil, and in March 2005, a teacher was among the nine victims of a 16-year-old boy in Minnesota. In November 2005, an assistant principal was shot dead at a school in Tennessee. The principal of a Wisconsin school was killed by a 15-year-old pupil in September last year.


In 2002, 13 teachers, two pupils and a police officer were killed in the Erfurt school massacre by a former pupil, Robert Steinhauser, who then committed suicide

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