BAGHDAD (Reuters) - “Two days left, one day left, she’s been counting the days,” said Hiro’s mother as she took her six-year-old youngest daughter to school for the first time.
For children in Iraq, the start of the new academic year on Sunday was a welcome opportunity for them to leave their homes, don smart new clothes and catch up with their friends again.
But for parents braving the streets of Baghdad on the school run, fear of bombs and kidnappings is the overriding emotion.
And teachers in the relatively safer parts of central Baghdad are struggling to cope with floods of new pupils from nearby districts still riven by sectarian violence.
“Of course they are happy, they do not realize the fear we are suffering because of the security situation,” teacher Rihab Abboud said outside Amal primary school in the central Baghdad district of Karrada.
Girls dressed in smart blue dresses, white blouses and with plaited hair, boys with new trainers, jeans and bright T-shirts, chat in groups, talk on mobile phones and chase each other round the playground.
“I’m happy because this is the first day for my youngest daughter,” said Hiro’s mother, Um Issa, outside the Fatima Bint Assad school in Karrada.
“But I’m happy and afraid at the same time. The streets are not safe.”
A drive by U.S. and Iraqi forces to stem violence in Baghdad has made some neighborhoods safer, but suicide attacks, kidnappings and sectarian killings are a daily reminder of the dangers of living in Iraq.
Education Minister Khodair al-Khozaei said six million students were starting the academic year. He told Reuters that 250 new schools have been built and others had been refurbished providing 1,200 new classrooms.
But families hounded by violence and sectarian attacks to seek sanctuary in safer parts of the capital are giving teachers additional headaches on the first day of term.
According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report for August 2007, 612,938 children in Baghdad have moved house since March 2006, from other parts of Iraq, the outskirts of the capital or from district to district within the city. Across Iraq, a total of 991,233 children have moved homes since March 2006.
The headmistress at Amal school is angry. She says promises to renovate the school built in 1932 have not been fulfilled and they’ve had to turn six storerooms into classrooms.
“Last year we had 987 students. This year it’s more than 1,000 maybe 1,150,” said Um Sabah, saying the total may climb at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a fortnight.
“Every student came with a letter saying they are displaced and I can’t say ‘no’,” she said. “Now each class has 70 students packed in like sardines.”
It was a similar story at the Haifa school near Karrada. Headmaster Zuhari Abbas said in 2006 he lost 41 pupils as families fled overseas or to other regions of Iraq.
This year the school roll is up at least 20 percent, swollen by children from Baghdad districts such as Doura, Jihad and Gazaliya where violence continues unabated.
Nevertheless, Abbas said more than 80 percent of pupils had received their books, new water pipes were providing drinking water and the toilet block had been retiled.
But Hameed, the English teacher at Haifa school, worries about the mental health of his pupils as many have been traumatized by the bloodshed in Baghdad.
One new arrival in first grade looks lost when asked his name. He says he doesn’t know. “Does anybody else know this boy’s name?” asks his teacher.
“You can see that their appetite for studying is not like in previous years,” Hameed said.
“You can see that many of them are not psychologically prepared. But what can we do? We are preparing everything we can for them.”
Parents, too, say they must try to give their children an education, despite their fears.
At the Haifa school, parent Shatha said there was an explosion at a market when she was buying her son Abdullah a new bag and stationery. And she won’t let him go out alone.
“Despite the security situation, I have to bring him to school. He has to learn. And I’m teaching him to love studying.”
Additional reporting by Wissam Mohammed