BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -The day began like any other at Dijla Primary School in Baghdad’s posh Mansour district. Rows of students in neat gray and white uniforms gathered in the courtyard to raise the Iraqi flag and sing the national anthem. They read passages from religious texts, then cheerfully went to their classrooms. Headmistress Wajida Sharhan was working in her office when a mortar shell slammed into a second-floor fifth grade classroom.
“The sound of the explosion was so powerful, as if heaven and earth collided,” she said. “I couldn’t open my eyes because of the dust. I heard loud screams from the children, and a girl came into my office with her arm nearly cut off.”
The torrent of violence that has swept Baghdad and surrounding provinces since U.S. forces invaded three years ago, and surged since last month’s attack on a Shiite shrine, has left little unscathed — even schools. What were once sanctuaries of learning have become places of fear, undercutting efforts to rebuild the dilapidated education system left by Saddam Hussein.
Bombs, rockets, mortar and machine-gun fire killed 64 school children in the four months ending Feb. 28 alone, according to a report by the Education Ministry. At least 169 teachers and 84 other employees died in the same period.
“We are in a society of insecurity,” said Education Minister Abdul Fallah al-Sudani. “Schools are not excluded from the suffering of our society.”
It’s unclear why the Dijla school was struck last October, but mortar rounds are difficult to aim. The school is located in a religiously mixed neighborhood that is home to a number of government officials and other prominent Iraqis.
But dozens of other schools were targeted in the weeks before December parliamentary elections, when their use as polling stations put them on the front line of insurgents’ efforts to derail the vote. More recently, schools have been caught in the wave of sectarian killing unleashed by the Feb. 22 destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra.
In one case, gunmen pulled over a school bus carrying about 25 high school girls in a mostly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad on March 8, shooting and killing the driver in front of his terrified passengers. In another, a security guard caught a would-be suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his waist as he mingled with children entering a primary school in a mostly Shiite neighborhood on March 14.
Iraq once had one of the best education systems in the Middle East, but its schools and universities crumbled under two decades of war and neglect. Teaching methods became outdated, enrollment dropped, and adult literacy fell to less than 60 percent — one of the lowest rates in the Arab world.
The system has been a focus of U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq. Nearly 3,000 schools have been refurbished, more than 8 million textbooks distributed and 30,000 teachers received training since 2003, according to U.S. government figures.
Al-Sudani, the education minister, has ambitious plans to modernize the curriculum, restock libraries and put computers in every school. But the unrelenting bloodshed hampers progress.
After Saddam’s fall, Dijla Primary School received a thorough spruce-up. Walls were painted, air conditioners and water coolers installed, and students got new paper and pencils.
But when Sharham, 61, ran upstairs after the shell landed, what she saw was bedlam. Desks and chairs were torn to pieces. Shoes, clothes, books and sandwiches were scattered everywhere. And pools of blood stained the floor.
Panicked children streamed downstairs, dust and blood covering their faces. The surrounding streets filled with desperate parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles calling children’s names.
The blast wounded 10 students, and 11-year-old Hassan Esam was killed. His photograph hangs in Sharhan’s office — a poignant reminder of that October day.
Dijla closed for a few weeks, but staff and parents rallied to get children back in class. Every day mothers accompany their children to school and wait in the dining room until it is time to take them home. On a blackboard in the hallway is written: “Forgive your enemy, nothing torments him more.”
Shahad Haidr, the shy 11-year-old in a bright red head scarf whose arm was nearly sliced off, is back and studying hard to become a pediatrician. But classmate Saad Hassanein, who lost a leg in the blast, refuses to enter the building.
Saad did her midyear exams in a car parked behind the school and is now in Jordan, learning to use a prosthetic leg.
“Those who did this are merciless people,” said Saad’s mother, who refuses to give her name for fear the family will be targeted. “I don’t know what will happen, or where she will continue her studies, because things are unstable in Iraq.”
Attacks and threats shut 417 schools between Oct. 27 and Feb. 28 — most only for a few weeks, but some longer — disrupting the education of thousands of children. The violence was concentrated in the capital and the volatile provinces of Anbar, Diyala and Babil, according to the Education Ministry report.
In the most dangerous areas, some parents prefer to keep their children home. Nawal, a first grade teacher in the tough Abu Ghraib neighborhood, said parents have pulled 12 children from her class since September.
The Education Ministry can arrange transfers, but there is still the trip to and from school to negotiate — a gauntlet of bombs, gunfire and kidnappers. At least 47 children were abducted for ransom in the period covered by the report.
It takes Nawal, 42, two hours to get to work. A few weeks ago, a roadside bomb narrowly missed the minibus she shares with other teachers. Days later, bullets whizzed by them as gunmen fired on an American patrol.
“My colleagues weren’t as brave as me,” she said. “They started crying.”
Many of her students have seen loved ones hurt and killed and struggle to concentrate on their school work, she said. One bright 7-year-old is the daughter of a feared insurgent and is isolated by students and staff alike.
Nawal, a Shiite Muslim, gave only one name for fear of reprisal in the mostly Sunni neighborhood where she works.
Some schools have resorted to armed guards for protection, and the Education Ministry has also appealed for help from the police and the army.
“Personally,” said ministry spokesman Mohammed Hanoun, “I am worried about my children, my friend’s children and all Iraqi children.”