|© UNICEF Iraq/2008|
|Children in Sadr City, Baghdad begin to return to school after weeks of violent clashes between military forces and Iraqi militia groups.|
By Claire Hajaj
AMMAN, Jordan, 23 May 2008 – The Baghdad Girls Primary in Iraq’s Sadr City had only been occupied by students for a few months before violent clashes erupted between military forces and militia groups in the area.
When the smoke cleared, the school was virtually destroyed – damaged by intense mortar and rocket fire. The school’s headmistresses, Zainab Kadhum, and her staff had worked to ensure that all the girls got home safely, but they could not save what had only recently been a brand new space for Iraqi girls to receive a quality education amidst the insecurity plaguing their country.
“The school has been reduced to rubble,” Ms. Kadhum says. “The girls still come to do their final exams, but we try to finish as early as possible so that the children do not spend a long time in this collapsing building. Any nearby bombing or tremor might cause the school to fall on the heads of the children.”
More than 29 of Sadr City’s schools were damaged in the violence. When schools reopened, teachers returned to shattered windows, fractured desks and chairs, broken toilets and nervous, distressed students. Many parents chose to keep their children at home even after the declaration of a ceasefire in the area.
Living in fear
“War for us means fear and uncertainty,” says 15-year-old Mohammed, who lives with his family in the heart of Sadr City. "It means houses destroyed, people killed and maimed, air-raids, bombings and blackouts. When there is fighting, we cannot leave the house or move around in our own streets."
Sadr City, a densely populated square mile and one of the poorest parts of Baghdad, has witnessed some of Iraq’s worst clashes since the 2003 war. A government-led effort to drive out militia groups sparked house-to-house fighting in many neighbourhoods. The conflict isolated communities, uprooted families and caused shortages of water, medicines and food.
“This fighting has had a big effect on us,” Mohammed says. “There has been no water, no electricity. Bombs are planted along the main road so even private cars cannot go out. Now when the rockets and mortars start to fall my father sends us into one room in our house where we all hide until we think it is safe.”
Sometimes, even these family precautions are not enough. One rocket fell right next to Mohammed’s house. It smashed the windows and the family car, and injured Mohammed’s father.
Rebuilding children’s confidence
UNICEF teams present on the ground have worked with local officials to deliver safe drinking water every day to over 13,000 families through UNICEF water tankers. Water and critical medical supplies have been delivered to city hospitals, helping beleaguered doctors and nurses treat large numbers of injuries.
As access eases, UNICEF is also starting to restore to Sadr City’s schools, many of which were in poor condition even before the conflict – without running water, electricity or proper sanitation.
“Restoring a school takes more than bricks and mortar,” says UNICEF’s Chief of Education in Iraq, Mette Nordstrand. “We need to rebuild children’s confidence in the value of education in such an unstable environment. When we bring relief to a school, it sends a message to children that learning is important to their future and that school can be a good place to be.”
UNICEF will provide new school supplies and rapid repairs for damaged buildings. But undoing the psychological impact of violence on children will be the greatest challenge.
“Our school is in a bad state now, but I hope it will get better” says Mohammed. “I am sure that other children feel sad when they hear what happens to us. No one wants children to face hardships and live in crisis.”
Additional reporting by Anwulika Okafor in New York
Violence in Iraq disrupts lives and education