War leaves its mark on schools

29th August 2003 at 01:00

Iraqi teachers and pupils struggle to get back on their feet, reports Christine Aziz

HEADTEACHER Khalod Al-Aazaway struggles with her emotions as she prepares for the start of term at the Lal Al-Suoff primary school in Baghdad.

"We have all suffered in the war," said Ms Al-Aazaway. "We jump at the slightest noise. Pupils draw violent pictures and cannot concentrate, and staff are struggling with their own problems and no pay. None of us is sleeping properly. How can we teach and the children learn? Security is very bad and some pupils haven't returned yet."

As well as the psychological problems of post-war Iraq, teachers like Ms Al-Aazaway work in tiny classrooms crammed with 60 children in a sweltering heat with no air-conditioning. Iraq's electricity supply has only been working to 40 per cent capacity since the war. "In these conditions diseases spread fast," said Ms Al-Aazaway.

"I don't know what is going on or what is going to happen to the school. I only hear things on the radio. In the newspapers it said we should go to the ministry of education to get things we need, like paper and pencils and things for the end of term exams. I went there and came away with nothing, not even the exam papers."

Iraq's teachers have so far received no information on the future of the education system they have struggled to maintain through three wars and 13 years of sanctions.

The staff at Lal Al-Suoff, a 750-pupil girls' school, are not aware that after the war, the US government put out contracts to tender in the private sector for the overhaul of the Iraqi educational system.

By April 14 the first contract had been awarded. Worth $62 million (pound;39m) it went to Washington-based Creative International Associates to implement the US Agency for International Development's Revitalisation of Iraqi Schools and Stabilisation of Education project (RISE). One of the project's priorities was to prepare children for the new school year which starts next week.

But five months after the war, Iraq's schools are still struggling; there are no new teaching materials, no funding, and teachers are still waiting for a regular salary. Before the war Ms Al-Aazaway earned $10 a month which she supplemented with private lessons. Until now she has received only $20.

Any overhaul of the Iraqi education system will be a monumental task.

Before l991 it was one of the best in the region, with more than 100 per cent enrolment for primary schooling . Now, according to UN figures, it is 53 per cent and a third of girls no longer go to school. Wars and sanctions - where even requests for pencils were turned down by the UN because their lead content might be used for weapons - have left schools in states of disrepair, over-crowded and with few resources.

There are other victims of the war. Jamal Nasser Hassune was director of more than 30 schools in the Dorah city district of Baghdad, including the Lal Al-Suoff. A few days after the war he was told he no longer had a job because he was a member of the Ba'ath party. He is also mourning his l7-year-old son and small grandson who were killed by clusterbombs.

"After 35 years working in education I was told to leave by a soldier standing outside the ministry of education. My name was on a list, he checked it and that was that," said Mr Hassune.

"When Saddam Hussein was president, if you wanted promotion to become a director, you had to move up in the Ba'ath party as well. I was like many people. I did it to get a better life for my family, not for political reasons."

Ms Al-Aazaway has lost several of her 27 teachers because they were Ba'ath party members. "I have heard that 50 per cent of the ministry of education has been sacked for this reason. That means years of experience have been wasted.

"How am I going to replace these teachers, all of them very good and experienced?" she asks, looking around her office. No one can answer her.

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