BAGHDAD, Sep 14, 2007 (IPS) - As another school year begins in Iraq, parents approach it with dread, fearing for the safety of their children.
With the security situation grimmer than ever all over the country, just stepping out of one’s house means a serious threat to life.
"God knows how we could send our kids to school this year," Um Mohammed, a mother of five in Baghdad told IPS. "Our financial situation is the worst ever and the prices are way too expensive for the majority of Iraqis to afford. I might have to keep some of them at home and send only two."
The 40-year-old woman shed tears when she started to talk about the family’s financial now compared to what it was before the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
"My God, don’t those Americans have any conscience? We were not rich before, but life was easy and we used to celebrate the school season, watching our kids trying their uniform on and looking at the colourful pictures of their new books," she said.
Iraqis blame their government’s failure to provide them with basic necessities on the U.S.-led occupation that has brought such an incompetent regime to power.
The Iraqi Ministry of Education promised Iraqis a better educational year in 2007, a promise that has been made every year for the past four years.
"The educational system in Iraq is destroyed and we are suffering all kinds of difficulties," said Hassan, a school headmaster in Baghdad who spoke on condition that his last name and the name of his school would not be used. "There will be a shortage of desks, blackboards, water, electricity and all educational supplies – as well as a critical shortage in the number of teachers this year."
Teachers, like other Iraqis, have fled the country because of threats from sectarian death squads. Some were evicted from their areas and moved to others inside Iraq for sectarian reasons.
According to Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education, as of February 2006, nearly 180 professors were killed and at least 3,250 have fled Iraq to the neighbouring countries. The situation has deteriorated severely since then.
"The number of teachers leaving the country this year (2006) is huge and almost double those who left in 2005," Professor Salah Aliwi, director-general of studies planning in the Ministry of Higher Education told reporters during an Aug. 24, 2006 interview in Baghdad. "Every day, we are losing more experienced people, which is causing a serious problem in the education system."
While teachers are at risk, Iraqi families are concerned for the safety of their children as well.
"I am not sending my two boys to school this year," Tariq Ahmed from Baghdad told IPS. "I am sure hundreds, if not thousands, of students will be abducted and killed by militias. I am not gambling with my boys’ life just to support Bush’s lies that the country is safe and sound."
Last month, the Iraqi Ministry of Education warned of possible low attendance of pupils at schools this year, saying it expects at least a 15 percent decrease in attendance compared to previous years.
Leila Abdallah, a senior official at the Ministry of Education, told reporters on Aug. 28 there has been a 54 percent increase in exam failure rates compared to previous years.
She added that many students had not completed their last exams as they had been forced by violence to flee their homes to safer areas.
The Iraqi NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA), recently said education standards in Iraq had dropped and many schools were relying on teachers teaching at least 100 students per class.
"Owing to lack of teachers, a class now has dozens of students, a situation that is preventing teachers from giving sufficient attention to individual pupils," Moussa Dureid, a spokesperson for the KCA, said.
According to an Oxfam International report released in July, "92 percent of children had learning impediments that are largely attributable to the current climate of fear."
The report added, "Schools are regularly closed as teachers and pupils are too fearful to attend. Over 800,000 children may now be out of school, according to a recent estimate by Save the Children UK -- up from 600,000 in 2004."
Iraqis do not feel secure despite the reassurances of U.S. and Iraqi authorities that the security situation has improved.
"Universities are death squad headquarters," Qutayba Assaad, a professor at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad told IPS. "They are practicing all kinds of torture inside the university and they abducted many of my colleagues because of their sect or their objections to what the clerics are doing inside universities."
"What education are you talking about," Kussay Kathum, a student at Baghdad University told IPS. "This country is dead and its body is being torn apart. They should stop schools and colleges attendance until they solve the core of the problem."
His colleague, Sumaya agreed with him.
"Indeed they should change the whole system in Iraq before sending us to school. It is suicide to go to colleges where the government's militias kill people. It seems that our American colleagues do not care for what is happening to us."
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)