Seabees Reclaim School For Iraqi Children

22 Jun 2003 | Spc. Benjamin Kibbey

Two years ago, the Fedayeen -- paramilitary thugs that Saddam employed to keep his military and nation in line -- stole the school from the children of Iraq and used it to imprison and torture dissidents and train the village's young men who were forced into service.

The normal sounds of children learning had disappeared, replaced instead by screams of interrogated victims. School murals gave way to diagrams of grenades and military slogans.

Now, through a collaboration of Navy, Army and Marine partners, the primary school will open to girls aged five- to 10-years old.

The school was brought to the attention of coalition forces in early May by Sheikh Muzhir, the village leader, said Maj. Frank Curtis, 43, the government support team executive officer with 304th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Philadelphia.

"The school is very important to the village, and the sheikh asked if (Marines) could help restore the school," said Curtis, a resident of Boston, Mass.

The Fedayeen had occupied the school for approximately two years before the coalition forces arrived.

"The Fedayeen taught the young men over 18 years how to fight and use machine guns, group by group, every two months," Muzhir said.

Curtis brought the topic of resurrecting the school to the attention of the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 of Gulfport, Miss.

"When we first got here, it was a military outpost," said Petty Officer 1st Class Victor Cabrera, 32, from River Grove, Ill., the project supervisor and an electrician for NMCB 133.

"They had prison cells, interrogation rooms and it also was a training facility," he said.  "A lot of it was to train the kids from the village here.  There was a lot of debris and a lot of uniforms."

A main hallway in the school was walled-off at one end, and another wall on the other end with a small door and small window was added. 

"No light could get in, it was like a dungeon," he said.  "That was their interrogation room."

"Now it looks like a school with open classrooms, but when the Fedayeen came in, they put up walls and had it all closed in," Cabrera said.  "We came in and knocked them down."

The Seabees have installed new interior wooden doors, lights, fans, and exterior metal doors with windows, but it took several coats of paint to cover bloodstains on the ceiling.

"They also had an obstacle course out back that we bulldozed," Cabrera said. "There were paintings on the outside wall of military diagrams, and a room for learning how to target with laser-sights."

Some of the Seabees have worked on fixing other schools, said Cabrera, but this has been the most involved so far, because of the amount of work that had to be done.

"This one here was a total renovation of everything," he said.  "This one was the big one."

"A lot of schools here, they have metal doors with no windows," Cabrera continued.  "This is going to be an all girls' school, so we're taking extra time to make it for girls."

The Seabees hired a blacksmith from Karbala to make the new metal doors, said Cabrera. The Seabees had enlisted local professionals in the community in the project.

"We work with masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and glaziers from the local area," he said.

The villagers helped with some of the cleanup as well.

"A lot of the local people helped to clean out the area for us," Cabrera said.  "The kids here, sometimes they volunteer to help.  A lot of it is community effort.  They see us helping, so they want to help out too."

A lot of the work has been complicated by the fact that the wiring in Iraq is very different from what the Americans are used to, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Bradley Nusbaum, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, a construction electrician with B Company, NMCB 133.

"I worked with one of the local people who is an electrician himself," he said.  "He came in and helped us understand how they wire things here."

The Seabees have had an outstanding reception from the local population for taking on the task, Cabrera said.

"Sometimes, the villagers bring us food to eat, and they usually come every day and thank us for what we're doing," he said.  "It's been a great experience out here for everyone."

Sheikh Muzhir said that he and the entire village were very pleased with the work the Seabees had accomplished with the school.

"I'm very comfortable, all the children here are happy:  children, and grown men, and women also," the sheikh said. "All of the village is very happy."

"The school is progressing well, and good," he continued.  "This job that the Seabees have done, if there was another group that would do it, that means additional cost, additional time, and more problems."

While fixing up the school, the Seabees have undertaken other tasks in the village as well, said Muzhir.

"Since seven months, there is no water here," he said.  "When the Seabees arrived, we asked them about the water.  Cabrera went and took a look at the water station, and made the station working again, in the best way."

The villagers had water pumps, but didn't know how to fix or install them, said Cabrera.

"They brought them, and they didn't have anyone to install them, so we helped," he said.  "We fixed them so they could have water in their homes again."

Even with the work the Seabees have accomplished with the water and school, the village, has many things that need to be taken care of, said Muzhir.  The problems, such as a road in need of repair, telephone service that is outdated or out of service, and a nearby brick factory spews pollution.

Are all carryovers from the former regime.

The rebuilding of Iraq is a slow process, and there is much work to be done, but with a little elbow grease, a lot of determination, and an honest desire to help, the Seabees of NMCB 133 are pushing forward.

"I enjoy helping the community, a lot of my crew enjoy working out here," said Cabrera.  "It shows the people here in Iraq what we can do for them.  Their astonished, and I tell them we're just here to help.  This is our mission."