AN ASTONISHING picture of life inside Baghdad's schools has been revealed by a group of Iraqi teachers who have travelled to the United Kingdom to gain respite from the daily bloodshed they witness. One, Suad Saleem Abdulla, described how she pulled her own children close every morning and said goodbye as if it were the last time she would ever see them. It was a daily ritual shared by parents throughout Iraq, she said. Only then did she start her treacherous 20-minute walk to school.
Ms. Abdulla, who told her story for the first time last weekend, has seen corpses and even "flying body parts" on her journey to the school where she is head teacher, but carried on walking because she was determined to keep it open.
The 43-year-old is one of 10 teachers, heads and school inspectors who have come to the U.K. from Iraq's capital after being invited by Britain's National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).
They spoke of teachers assassinated as they walked to work, or kid napped in front of pupils, and a daily battle to keep the terror outside the school gates. Their stories give a remarkable insight into the lives of Iraqi children who turn up for lessons day after day despite the bloodshed and violence.
Last month, a photographer captured an image of a girl in uniform on a blood-stained step after insurgents launched a mortar attack on her school. To Ms. Abdulla and her colleagues, the image was disturbingly familiar.
A similar attack has been launched four times on Nasser Kdhim Nasser's school in the al-Husseini area of Baghdad, leaving one student dead. "The atrocities impacted so badly on one boy that he did not come back in, but for most, even though they have seen horror, school life continues as normal. We teach children to paint, draw and sing. Every morning they stand up, raise the flag and sing the national anthem."
Ms. Abdulla is similarly determined: "We have no choice. We have to carry on living, we have to go out. These extremists want to stop life, and the best thing to them is to stop us going to school and teaching the children. But if they stop that, then everything will collapse."
Each day she has just four hours to teach the 400 pupils before another school takes over the building for the afternoon session. She presides over Arabic, English, mathematics, art, sport, and much more. Two weeks ago, she saw insurgents set up a phony road block near the building so she locked the doors and carried on inside.
To get textbooks and stationery, Ms. Abdulla has to walk to a nearby UNICEF building. It is a job none of her staff is prepared to do because those who go there are often targeted by snipers.
Teachers, according to the group, are at particular risk because insurgents want to disrupt education. Mahdi Ali Lefta, the head of the delegation, is from al-Mahmodia, where five teachers were executed in front of children. In Ms. Nasser's area, three head teachers were killed.
A different world
The issues facing these teachers in Baghdad are barely imaginable to colleagues in the U.K. "The challenges they have got are workplaces open, can they get members to work? puts into perspective all the furore over closures because of snow," said Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, which is playing host to the group in Birmingham, central England. "In Iraq, it's about getting schools open for basic education." Yet when Ms. Keates talked to the teachers during their visit, their questions were not about security in the face of terror but wage negotiations and pensions.
They clapped when they were told they were going to Stratford to see Richard III in Arabic. Back home, few of them venture out beyond 5 p.m.
"In the evening the roads are deserted as if there is a curfew," said Bushra Bashar Taleea, a teaching adviser.
"Where I live, the warehouse we use to store basic food for children has been blown up three times. We are afraid, but we are conditioned to it because we see it every day. Life is better now because we have got rid of the dictatorship, but we need time," she says.
Ms. Taleea "jumps" when she hears a bang and constantly calls her family to reassure them that she is alive.
Ali Ahmed Sindal, aged 63, a school inspector, checks on his three sons and daughter every day after work. But Mr. Sindal, who spent four years on death row under Saddam Hussein, was hopeful: "We are optimistic that all these things will be ended within one year, two years, three years. Then we are expecting a new life, a better life."
In the meantime, the teachers want to keep improving the country's education system. Mr. Lefta, who has brought the teachers to Britain with the support of the Iraqi Federation of Workers, said he was still planning strategies for teaching a year in advance, despite the trouble.
"These people who attack education, attack schools and teachers have nothing in their heart but hate and violence and they want the destruction of Iraq. They have no sense of humanity."
Teacher Mohamed Seed Hatem said the situation today "was still better than it was. A bloody dictatorship has gone."
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006