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Iraq Transition

Iraqi students fear death of education system

By Arwa Damon
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Maha Nidal's voice is tinged with bitterness and sorrow as she looks around the campus courtyard at her fellow students milling around. The sight is a blend of Iraq's various religious sects --some girls in headscarves, others looking like they walked out of the pages of a fashion magazine.

"The future? The future is a dream. We only live in the now. There is no future," the 21-year-old student says.

This university, with its sprawling green campus, once was abuzz with activity. Now it is covered in the layer of grime and dust that seems to blanket all of Baghdad.

Like most of the students at Baghdad University, Maha lives in fear. But now, after the mass kidnapping at the Ministry of Higher Education this week, she lives not only in fear of the violence, but in fear of losing the one thing that will determine her future -- her education. (Watch Maha describe the lack of hope Iraqi students have -- 2:17 Video)

When she heard that the education ministry was thinking of shutting down the university, her world -- already shattered -- crumbled.

"You can't imagine what we felt, I saw our future destroyed," she says. "How do you know that a future of a country ... has been destroyed? It's when there is no justice, no security, and no education, if you reach the stage of no studies and no education. And when you lose that, that's it, the people are finished.

"There is no future."

With frustration reverberating in her voice, her cousin, 19-year-old Afraa adds, "Each day it just gets worse. Like last year we had maybe 50 percent hope, but now nothing, it's zero percent. There is nothing that is happening that makes us think, yes, they [the government] are doing something."

The two girls live in the same home now. Afraa's family fled sectarian violence in a violent western Baghdad neighborhood and moved in with Maha's family. The two girls are like many here, hungry for an education, showing up each day despite the risks and their families' protests, and hoping that their classes will be in session.

Maha, in her headscarf, is the more conservative of the two, but the more talkative. She says that sometimes she is simply just overcome with anger.

"I want to continue on to get my masters," she says. "I have good grades; I am in the top 10 of my class, but now what am I supposed to do?"

The university is all that these girls and others have left. The streets outside are petrifying. They don't go out, even the simplest thing like walking in the street, grabbing a cup of coffee with friends, shopping, the things that most university students do without a thought in other parts of the world, are impossible here.

Their world is one of gunfire, explosions, concertina wire, blast walls and uncertainty.

"We don't know if we will be alive the next minute," Maha says.

The university, even after the mass kidnapping, provides little in terms of actual security. Most of the guards are students themselves. The ministry and the university have asked the government for additional security, but the girls have no delusions that their government is going to come through for them.

"They can't do anything," Afraa says. "Because if they could, they would have done it from the start. But they are too obsessed with themselves."

Maha is harsher.

"They say that they can't provide security for teachers and students," she laments. "Well then, how is it that they can provide security for themselves? They each have hundreds of guards surrounding them."

One does not have to look further than the empty hallways and deserted classrooms to see the toll that the violence is taking on Iraq's educated moderate minds. The students say that on a good day, 40 percent of their classmates show up. More often than not, their professors are not around. Most of the senior professors have fled the country or have been killed.

"The head of my department was killed last year," Maha says. "Gunmen came to his house and killed him. And that was hard for us. He was like one of the students; he kept us strong."

He also gave her hope.

Many of the students here are aware that extremist elements want to divide Iraqi society and drive out secular moderates.

"This is what they want -- the gunmen, the terrorists, any force right now with its hands in destruction wants this -- no education," Maha says. "No learning, no future, for ignorance to rule so that they can have control."

The impact of the academic destruction, as one Iraqi education official put it, could kill this struggling nation.


Maha Nidal and her cousin Afraa bemoan the Iraqi government's inability to provide security on campus.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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