Iraq goes back to school, but not back to normal

Students trickle in as half of Baghdad's classrooms reopen

It started like any other day. Almost.

"Good morning," says head teacher Amal Majeed with a smile to the dozen 8-year-olds in her small classroom. "Please open your books to Page 1, and tear out that picture. If your mothers do not allow you to tear books make a big X mark - and let's move rapidly along to Lesson 7, on formal greetings in the Arab tradition."

"A salaam aleikum" - may peace be with you - the children chant, pleased to see their teachers, happy to be together, though only 12 of their 140 classmates have returned to school.

And so just like that, the visage of Mr. Hussein - which for the past 20-odd years stared out at students across this country from the first page of every textbook - was unceremoniously done away with at the Marjaayoon Primary School here on Saturday, the first day back since the war began.

But even as unarmed police officers return to work Monday, getting back to normal in the post-Hussein era will take more than removing the man or his image. Electricity and water are still unpredictable, traffic lights are flickering, buildings are smoldering, offices are closed, and looters firing guns into the air abound. But the worst, say residents, is simply the uncertainty.

Roxan Yousif Kamil absentmindedly presses on the gas of her beat-up Chevrolet, almost slamming into the car ahead of her. She grumbles under her breath, caught in a massive traffic jam as she takes her three children to school. Their suburban home is 15 minutes away, but they have been stuck in the car for over an hour, watching as one hapless driver after another tries to direct traffic at the roundabout. Everyone is honking, and tempers rise with the heat.

The first stop is Marjaayoon. It is one of more than 220 schools, half of all those in Baghdad, that are now open. Many remain closed because they have yet to be checked for weapons by US troops, or because they have been bombed, burned, or looted.

Ms. Kamil's son Yousif, dressed up in his finest clothes, is a student in the fourth grade at Marjaayoon. Grinning shyly, he hugs his teacher. He is two hours late, but it makes little difference. Most students did not even know schools were reopening. Perhaps they were not listening to the radio for information, or maybe they are out of town. Some are afraid to go out into the streets, and the rest don't have enough gas to make the drive. That will soon be Kamil's problem she admits, but meanwhile, she has decided her kids will go to school on Thursdays and Saturdays.

As she makes her way to the second stop - her son Mustafa's high school - she passes her former office downtown, now boarded up. She works in the tourism business, organizing visits for Iranians to the holy shiite sites of Iraq. But she has had no groups since December.

"Now, the Iranians will come back," she muses nervously, "but not on tours." Kamil, like many other Sunnis, worries about the country coming under a more extreme Shiite rule, influenced, perhaps, by Iran.

As a US tank lumbers by, Kamil notes that her sister lives in Raleigh, N.C. Thousands of Iraqi exiles living in the US want to return their homeland - not so her sister. "Why would she want to come here?" asks Kamil. The second floor of the National Theater annex collapses as she drives by, as if to answer that question.

Enterprising salesmen wander through the traffic selling printouts of the US deck of most-wanted Iraqi leaders. The US now has 18 of the 55 top regime members in custody.

Sama, the eldest, is the last one to be dropped off. But her girls' school is near the Jamhuriya bridge, where heavy fighting took place a few weeks ago, and they find the school wrecked and abandoned. Sama is in her last year and is - was - planning to go to law school.

"But I don't care, actually," she says, looking disappointed and wiping off her pink lipstick with the back of her hand.

A few hours later, when they are finally back home in the Ghazali neighborhood, Roxan Kamil's husband, Awal, is pacing in the living room. A military man for 26 years and a former officer in the Republican Guard, he is not used to being at home, uncomfortable in his civilian clothing, and generally agitated.

Ms. Kamil takes out a tourism book on the treasures of the now-sacked national museum and leafs through it. The Assyrian period was her favorite, she says, wiping a tear from her eye. Sama rolls hers.

"Who cares about the museum or our history or our past, woman," roars Mr. Kamil, disparagingly. "The problem is not food or water or traffic or your Assyrian statues. It's about the future. What will come next?"

The electricity buzzes and then disappears, too, stopping the tea kettle in mid-whistle. "I want to understand what is going on," he yells. His money, held in the bank, has been lost, he says, and he will never work as a military man again. "But I can't do anything else either," he adds.

A month ago he was on the outskirts of Baghdad ready to defend the city. But he received no fighting orders.

"We had trained our whole lives for defending our city," he says. "But there was a conspiracy and we never got the order to fight. So we went home. There are now seven divisions worth of elite soldiers at home in their pajamas like me." He has no expectations that the Americans will call.

"I am of no use to the Americans," he says. "They are only interested in Yousif. Only the very young - so they can turn their minds and make them into a new kind of Iraqi man." The older generations, he believes, will be overlooked in the future of the country. "No one asks us what we want or who we might chose to lead us," he says. "We are not important to anyone. Shame."

Sama picks up the poodle, scowls. She has nothing to do for the rest of the day. She applies some fresh pink lipstick.

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