Civil affairs helps locals rebuild schools

12 Jun 2003 | Army Spc. Melissa Walther

For more than 20 years under Saddam Hussein, schools in Iraq had been neglected.

Instead of playing soccer or basketball, the children of the Al Nazah School for Girls and the Al Amgad School for Boys play on abandoned anti-aircraft gun.

"This is the real picture of Saddam," said Zahra Neama, headmistress of the school.   "Instead of giving the teachers what they needed, he gave us weapons."

This is just one of the problems the schools team of the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion of Green Bay, Wis. is trying to correct.  Working with the First Marine Expeditionary Force and local Iraqi contractors, the Army Reserve unit assessed the Al Amgad School June 16 to determine its needs.

The ongoing effort is the best way to determine what this school, as well as others like it, will need to better serve the youth of Iraq, unit members say.

"We want to build a strong future for these people," said Spc. Amy Schroeder, a soldier with the 432nd.  "That means educating the children."

"We want to show (the children) the world, rather than just Saddam," Neama said.  Instead of teaching about Saddam's life and family, schools are now teaching geography and other subjects.

One problems, however, is the need for new textbooks.

"Right now all of the textbooks have Saddam in them and tell all about him, but not a whole lot else," said Pfc. Angela Graben.  "We're working on getting new ones printed, but things like that will take time."

For now, the coalition is providing immediate improvements to get the schools open again.  Things such as running water, electricity and desks are the main things the schools have received, Schroeder said. 

The Marines, Navy Seabees, and Army civil affairs groups are working more with local contractors to meet the problems of the schools, according to Schroeder.  An immediate goal is obtaining sports equipment such as basketball hoops for the playgrounds and other equipment more suitable than artillery pieces.

"Right now there's a lot of surplus supplies in the school warehouses," Schroeder said.  "We're just finding out what the schools need the most and making sure they get it."

The central distribution warehouse, which is state-ran, is located in Baghdad.

One of the things many schools are receiving is a new brass bell to signal the change of classes.  The 189 bells, donated by the First Marine Division, are a big hit with the children.  Kept shiny and clean by the students, the bells are given to schools that are aided by the various Marine civil affairs groups.

"It's a big thing for the children to ring the bell," Neama said.  "It means they did something good."