The Past, Present and Future of Children in Iraq


Egawa in a classroom of an elementary school in Baghdad
by Shoko Egawa

It took more than thirty hours after the plane took off from Narita airport, but I finally arrived at Saddam International Airport on December 19th. The airways to and from Baghdad had been closed since the Gulf War took place. However, air travel between Baghdad and Damascus had resumed recently. Most of passengers on the plane from Damascus were Iranian pilgrims who were visiting sacred places of Shiite in Iraq.
The airport and flight security into and out of Iraq was different. For example, at Damascus Airport security was quite heavy. It included body search and extensive luggage search. Furthermore, batteries of all types were not allowed on board. As a result, all the batteries I had in my carry-on were confiscated. But rechargeable batteries inside my video cameras were overlooked. On the other hand, leaving Baghdad there seemed to be even more security. Everything was checked thoroughly. However there seemed to be no clear standard for security. So I found it confusing.
I made my decision to visit Iraq after September 11th attacks in N.Y and Pennsylvania. While the world leaders competed with others in expressing sympathy and condolence to the President of the United States and the people of America, Saddam Hussein voiced less than sympathetic words for America. He spoke of how America had brought on the tragic events on to themselves. I was very interested yet concerned by such comments and attitude. Thus, I wanted to go to Iraq and see for myself.
Prior to leaving Japan for Iraq, the talk and news reports of Iraq being the next target in America's war against terrorism was rampant. Naturally, I was concerned by this and expected myself walking into a nation of tense and battle weary people. However, at least on the surface, I couldn't have been more wrong. The people in Baghdad appeared calm and not at all concerned nor intimidated by the reports of the imminent attack. Instead, many said they had gotten used to the American threats of attack over the years.

No lights, no heating in the classrooms

It is not too much to say that Iraqis have been under a state of "War" for these eleven years. By "War" I am referring to sudden increase of number of deformed children and children suffered and died from cancers such as leukemia since the Gulf War. Experts say it is the aftereffect of depleted uranium shells U.S. used during the war. Also America and Britain still continue to unilaterally enforce no-fly zones in the northern and southern parts of Iraq and continue bombing even after the cease-fire of Gulf war. Furthermore, the economic sanctions based on UN Security Council's resolution still remain in effect. Thus furthering the delay of economic recovery while adding to the misery of everyday Iraqis.
Yet, even under these difficult situations, there were signs of some economic recovery and growth. I saw brand new double-decker buses made in China shuttling passengers in the city. I saw Russian businessmen who had come to seek markets for their products. And I saw markets full of goods and food products. However, except for the necessities of life, these goods were deemed too expensive for ordinary people.

Aiahtt quitted school to help his family

Under the economic sanctions people can hardly make a living. So a lot of children have quit schools to work in order to help support their families. I met one of those children, a thirteen-year-old boy named Aiahtt, at a used-book market that opens Friday, which is the holiday in Islamic calendar. "I work here on every Friday and at a grocery market on other days. My dad works as a baker. But he earns only 2000 ID, or 1 dollar, a day. So I have to work." Answering to my questions, he went on to say, "What I want the most are clothes. What I want to eat the most are bananas. I want to go to Jordan. I want to work there and save money. Then I will send money to my family." Then, when asked if there were any countries he disliked he simply replied, "No countries." Oddly, just at that moment when one of the men nearby who had heard my question muttered "America" the young boy nodded and quickly changed his words and concurred with the man. In reference to the above incident, it seemed to me some adults were eager to give children such "advice" about such topics.

the classroom packed with sixth-grade girls

In my quest to hear voices and views of the Iraqi youths, I asked The Ministry of Education for interviews in schools. In response, I was subsequently introduced to an elementary school, a junior high school, and a high school in Saddam City, an impoverished section of Baghdad. During the tour I saw piles of garbage in vacant lots near the elementary school and one of the officers explained that the schoolyards turn into muddy fields on rainy days. Inside, it was very cold in the classrooms without any heating systems. The surfaces of blackboards were chipped and scratched. A shortage of chalks meant using them to their very end. The classrooms were dimly lit. The windows with broken glass were left as they were. When I went to the high school, students saw me off through such windows and waved good-bye.
I also learned that under the terms of economic sanction, Iraq has been banned to import even pencils, paper, ink, implements for basic experiment, and computers. Teachers complained that the embargoes have seriously affected education. When I ask them to show me the library in the elementary school, they pointed to a bookshelf at the corner of guest room saying, "Those are all books in our school".
Though boys and girls under fourth grade study together, children of fifth grade and up go their separate ways in Iraq. In the classroom, which I visited the first, the girls of sixth grade were packed so tight there was hardly any room to move. I asked them "What is most important for you?" Most of girls replied "my family". One girl said; "My dad and mom, the president of Iraq, and peace of this country". To my question of "Please tell me both points you like and dislike about your father", no girls had anything bad to say. One of the replies I got was, "Because of my daddy I can come to school everyday. When I get sick, he takes me to hospital. I can't find any point I dislike in my daddy. He has brought up me with tender care. Even when I am scolded by him, I love him."
I asked the same questions to children in other grades in elementary school, students of junior high school, high school, and university. Amazingly, not one of them had anything bad to say of their parents. Even a university student with mustache seemed confused by what may have been to him a rather silly question from me, what is the most important for him, when to him the answer was such a clear cut one - his parents of course.
In Baghdad I saw many parents together with their children, especially fathers holding their babies in their arms. To my question of how they spent holidays, almost all of children of elementary school and junior high school mentioned spending time with their family. Relationship between parents and children seemed much closer than in Japan. I learned that adults, especially parents, are the most trusted advisers and sources of information for the children. Children learn about many things, including war, through their parents' experience and opinion. As a result the words of Iraqi children seem to mirror the experiences and values of all Iraqis, especially their parents.
In fact, when I asked the girls of fifth-graders to choose and draw pictures of one from the three themes "my dream", "war", and "peace", many of them selected "war". They drew American fighters bombing, women and children shedding blood under the fighters, and Iraqi tanks fighting back. Some girls drew scenes of Israel attacking Palestinians. Obviously, even though they themselves have had no direct experience of such horrors, it was apparent many of them were able to closely relate to what had happened through the stories passed down to them.
Similarly, at a boys' junior high school, I asked the students to each write an essay. These were some of what I got back: One wrote, "There is a common wish among all Iraqis and that is the lifting of the embargo." He continued, "I would like to visit many countries in the world. Learning a lot from the knowledge and information of advanced countries. I would like to enjoy my life." Another wrote, "I come back to my house late at night everyday because I have to work part-time after school. Not only I but all people in Iraq have been suffering from the embargo. And I hope my father will get better from his illness"
They were then asked what the word "peace" meant to them. These were what they wrote: One boy wrote, "For us, peace means 'safety'. I would like to live the same (safe and wealthy) life as other young people in the world live." Then he wanted to know if his school was as same as the schools in Japan. He ended his essay by writing, "I hope to study freely in the world someday. My dream is to become a great doctor." Another response was, "Wars destroy everything. On the contrary, peace gives enjoyment and security to people. I wish Israel stop attacking Palestine. And I also wish the injustices of America attacking Afghanistan will be stopped soon."
I felt how they long for a normal and happy childhood from their voices. In spite of those difficulties, they have their own dreams as indicated by such comments as, "My dream is to become a soccer player who is the famous not only in Iraq but in all of Arab and Europe. I would like to play in many countries in the world. I cheer for the Japanese team, too. I am a big fan of Nakata." and "I would like to become a doctor who serves my country and people. I wish for the lifting of the unjust embargo. I also wish for the young people of Iraq to help this country with great history and civilization to soar again."

Patience, the new pride of Iraqis

Inside of Ameriya shelter in which 408 people were killed by U.S. missiles

The high school students were able to express their own experiences and memories of the Gulf War and pre sanction days. One of the boys I interviewed, Raizan Ali Kamel, says, "I remember clearly the event in Ameriya shelter". (For those uninitiated, it is said the bombing of Ameriya bomb shelter for the civilians was the most heinous of all bombings during the Gulf War. In one early morning two missiles attacked this shelter, killing 408 sleeping children, women, and seniors. In fact, most of casualties were burned beyond recognition and identification.) Kamel continued, "I would feel happy when America is attacked and damaged as much as Iraq has been". However, on the other hand, he expressed sympathy for the victims of September 11th, "I got sad when I heard the news. Though America is the country that has been attacking us unfairly, I feel sorrow when I think about the victims and their families of Sept. 11."
Another high school student, Haidar Yusef, who wants to become a policeman, says he remembers clearly the scene when a bridge was destroyed during the Gulf War. Then he added, "The events during the War often come to my mind. We are still under war. I believe we will win against America at the end of the war. What comes on my mind when I hear 'peace' is the life in pre-wartime. Iraq was very wealthy. We could get everything including food and medicine." As he spoke his tone was of longing of the pre Gulf War days when this oil-rich country used to be one of the wealthiest countries in middle east.
In fact Yusef was not alone in this feeling of frustration and helplessness as people who knew of those days also expressed similar sentiments. In addition to looking back to the pre-war prosperity, Iraqis spoke proudly of their history and ancestors, "We had Mesopotamia when western people were still living in caves." To which another added, "We used to be blessed with good economic conditions. And Iraq is the place where civilization was born. People work hard. So Iraq would be one of leaders in the world without the embargo." Such were the sentiments of many Iraqis, indicating the growing ill sentiments the Iraqis have against America, which stands in the way of having the embargo lifted.

New mosque build in the midst of economic sanctions

In the meantime, the people of Iraq seem to have rallied themselves to endure and outlast the harsh realities of the sanctions. I heard many people talking proudly of Iraqis' perseverance, and their ability to withstand and overcome many difficulties. Despite such pride, the prospects of Iraq's future remain uncertain. Nobody can predict how much longer the sanction will last. They are also in the face of danger that America may resume intensive air strikes against Baghdad.

Young Iraqis Want Dialogue With Americans

Under such difficult situation what do young people, especially those who are expected to build new Iraq in the future, think? To hear their voices, I visited Baghdad University.

Sutudents gathered to express their opinions

I was given permission to interview students on the campus without any pre conditions or constraints. Soon after I began the interviews, students gathered and formed a line in front of me, all wanting to participate
I was very impressed by their eagerness and the conviction in voices when sharing their thoughts and opinions in response to my questions. One of such students, Isra Haten, a freshman of Political Science Department, who one day hopes to work for The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and become an ambassador in the future stated, "I think Iraq is known as a state which always opts for a peaceful policy. We too want peace in the world and I am satisfied with the current policy of my country."
The belief of Iraq being a peaceful and a peace loving country was shared by most of the people I spoke to. I also learn during my interviews, the students are taught how the greedy America was behind the Gulf War and its' continued attempts to overthrow the current Iraqi regime. Thus, the Gulf War is thought as a war of aggression by America.
One such student, Khalid Hindi, a freshman of the Political Science Department, who hopes of being a diplomat said, "To find a way out of these difficulties, we need to strengthen ties with other countries. It is important to deepen friendship with Arab nations as well as China and Russia. I think we should rebuild good relationship with Japan in near future. Iraq is longing for peace. I'd like to discuss (peace) with all countries in the world including America". When I asked him if he had anything to say about his counterparts in America, he added, "I would like to talk with any American students. I don't have hatred or malice for ordinary people including students of America. I blame the President of the U.S. and his advisors."
Another student, Mohamed Farhan, who wants to serve as a military officer, too criticized American government, "The events of Sept. 11 are fruits of American policy so far. The damage America has caused in Iraq is bigger. The damage America caused in Japan with nuclear bombs was much bigger. American troops are so unfair that they always attack other countries from air or by long-range missiles. We have to continue to resist the American policy of self interest and globalism" To achieve this he would be more than happy to discuss such issues with American students. To which he added Iraq would not strike America first nor attack ordinary people of America. He further expressed if they were to fight then he would like fight against them on the ground and teach them what real war is.
Then before ending his interview he added, "I feel sorry for the victims of Sep.11. I can sympathize with their sorrow because we Iraqis have experienced similar tragedy, where hundreds of innocent people were cruelly massacred" As with the two students I have mentioned above, many of the students I interviewed wanted to talk with Americans about resolving the current issues and despite holding American government responsible, expressed their sympathy for the victims of terrorism.

Their Dreams, Our Hopes

Most of students in the Political Science Department want to be politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats. But at the same time, I met a girl who didn't want to work in political field. In Iraq, student's path of study is often decided by their school marks rather than their interest. As a result, based on her high marks she was assigned to the Political Science Department, which by the way is the most difficult one to enter. When asked for her opinion on this matter, she replied, "I think it is my destiny and I will continue to study. However, I would like to go abroad to study art after I graduate from university. I'd like to live in London". This statement was punctuated with the phrase "Inshallah" meaning "If Allah wills it".
During these interviews, it became apparent that many students hope to go abroad for study or work despite the difficulties they may experience in realizing such dreams due to current situation. Even though one student lamented, "Embargos kill the hope of young people", when they say "Inshallah", I felt they were keeping their hope through the faith to Allah. In fact, the girl who wanted to go to London also said cheerfully, "The dream will come true if Allah wills it. Someday it will be realized, if I don't give up, by the grace of God."
It should be noted that during the whole time I was interviewing the students there was never any criticism of Britain. After all, the British have been the most vocal country against Iraq after America. Rather, when people spoke of Britain it was in reference to a country, which they wanted to visit.
And I was just as surprised that most of people were pro-Japanese. Many expressed their interest in visiting Japan as well. These were the words of one such student, "I am interested in Japan because it is famous as a country of highly developed technology. Japan was also severely damaged by America. Though it was one of developing countries at the time, it has reached the top of the world now. So I admire Japan".
I heard no criticism whatsoever on the present regime that, I hesitated to ask them about any negative aspects of the President Saddam Hussein reported in the West. Although many in the West may argue that information control by the government may have affected people's true opinion, I think the reason lies in the difficulties of war and economic sanctions have united the people under one (Saddam's) direction. It would be ironic if the embargo has strengthened President Saddam Hussein stature domestically.

Mr. Ali and his wife, their 4 children were killed in the Ameriya shelter

Before I went to Iraq, I thought the Iraqis would be eager for revenge against America. But I soon realized that wasn't so; at least not in my encounters. Iraqis feelings and thoughts on America were much more diverse and complicated than I had expected. I even met boys who wanted to go to America. Also, even those who had strong anti-America sentiments didn't feel any intention or the need of attacking America. This was never more apparent when I met and interviewed Mr. Ali Sali and his wife, the parents whose four children had been killed in Ameriya shelter by missiles of America. Their grief had not yet healed nor would it ever. They could not pass a day without the use of tranquilizers. They said, "We wish we were dead".
Needless to say, the parents still harbor deep grudge against America as I heard them say, "May Bush be severely judged by Allah" and "May America get Heaven's vengeance" many times during the interview. However, when I asked them about the events of Sept 11 I was very surprised by their reply, "I am very sorry for the victims. They were also blameless." Then, when I asked them again if they thought that victims' families of both countries could understand each other and share the sorrow their reply was an immediate "Yes". It should be noted that America has never expressed any regret for the Ameriya incident.
So, as one can see, there continues the basic difference in who is the bad side. On one hand, America continues its' distrust of Iraq, even labeling it as one of "rogue states" or "axis of evil". On the other hand, Iraqis believe the present regime of President Saddam Hussein as being a peaceful one. The gulf between the two countries is a wide one. I know it is not easy for the two countries to understand each other, but I would like to harbor hope on the young people of Iraq who want to improve situation through dialogue with their American counterparts. And for Japan, even though we are far apart with Iraq both geographically and psychologically it isn't impossible to overcome them to gain a better understanding of each other. Furthermore, it would be wise for us to look at the young people of Iraq who despite the tragedies and difficulties continue to hold on to hope for peace. I also think it is about time we start giving the opportunity to those who haven't been heard from, like Mr. Ali, and listening to what they may have to say.
(This is the translation of the report for Weekly Bunshun, 14 February,2002)

Copyright 2006 © Shoko Egawa All Right Reserved.