December 10th - Nahrain University
12 Dec 2003
Modified: 22 Dec 2003
A friend's university, Saif's escape from Saddam and some of Ahmed's stories from his time driving the ambulance.
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farah and tegrit 1.jpg
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We didn’t move for twenty minutes. The petrol queues, combined with the usual chaos of intersections, had packed the traffic solidly so that, if you had an inch either end to rock back and forth in, you counted yourself lucky. Passengers got out of cars and passers-by came off pavements to marshal cars onto the pavement, which freed a bit of space in the middle of the jam though another crisis came up in the shape of a heap of bricks and sand further up the alley.

Hussam’s college, when we finally reached it, is Nahrain University, which used to be Saddam’s university. A plinth at the entrance with a ragged stump on top marks his demise.

The Dean, Professor Fawzi, graduated from Newcastle University in the UK, as did I. Nahrain, he says, was not as badly hit as others by the war. Its libraries were not looted and its buildings weren’t damaged, but nonetheless it’s short of pretty much everything. He said the college has the finest librarians it could have, very dedicated, well trained and fluent in English. The science and engineering books used in Iraqi universities are mainly in English.

“The soldiers shot one of our lecturers, Dr Imad, by accident. We had a demonstration on the campus. You know today there is a demonstration against terrorism. I am not sure whether it is against US terrorism or some other kind. In the student halls of residence here on the campus they have had no electricity for the last 10 days.”

In the library Amal explained that they use the CD ISIS system, an international library system. They have books, although usually not the most recent editions, but they have no journals more recent than 1991. They’re especially short of civil and architectural engineering material because they’re new subjects to the college There is only one computer for the whole science library for cataloguing, internet and other work. Baghdad university students also use the college’s library, so the shortage of resources is acute.

The campus was packed with young men and women milling together after the day’s exams. Here were the most women I’ve seen since I got here, because the lack of security outside the campus means girls and women are staying off the streets. The graffiti on the walls is officially sanctioned ‘tagging’ by graduating groups, Science Class of 2003, King of Electronics, as well as the ubiquitous ‘mind the bomb’ posters warning against stepping on landmines and cluster bombs.

Farah says laboratory equipment is the biggest problem on her course. Electronic and communications engineering is a practical course but there isn’t enough equipment to do practicals, so it’s mainly theory. Her friend Tegrit agreed. She studies civil engineering and wants to work in construction. Laboratories are the thing they most need.

Farah said, “I was against the war. We did not love or hate Saddam, it made no difference to us, but we did not want to be invaded. I don’t like seeing soldiers about, although some of them are cute. They are just here because they’re ordered to do this, because their government told them life in Iraq was really terrible, so I don’t blame the soldiers but I don’t like to see them here.”

She was born in 85, during the war with Iran, and has no memory of life except under war and sanctions. “I want safety and a government which is strong and can keep control. I am not very interested in elections. They are a foreign thing that people are trying to give us. I wish people and students overseas will listen to the Iraqi people and not to their own governments’ news about Iraq. I live in Karrada, so it is not far from the university, but I can’t just go there and back. For the boys they can, but not for the girls. A driver comes to fetch me here because it is safe in the campus but not outside.”

Really neither of the girls has much interest in who governs Iraq, so long as it is safe and they have what they need. Everyone said there’s no political activity on campus. There are no students’ unions now that the old Baathist ones have gone. The political parties are not recruiting here and there are no student organizations that any of them were aware of.

My friend Saif had more of an interest in getting rid of Saddam – he and his brother found out after the war that they were on the Public Security list, of people who were being watched. Mukhabarat were for everyone, Public Security was just for Shia, Saif said. “So the war helped me, but this isn’t freedom. What the Americans are doing is wrong. They killed an old man in Thawra the other day.” Thawra is Saif’s neighbourhood.

Saif, though, like the students, has little interest in politics. He pointed out a wall where nine different parties had painted their names and slogans but he didn’t know any of them. He asked did I know which party a particular group of people were representing. I thought they were from one of the Communist parties. “Are they Russian,” Saif wondered. “My friend has a picture of Stalin and of Lenin. My father also has a picture of Lenin.” He’s a young Shia from one of the poorest areas, irregularly employed and presumably a prime target for several parties but is utterly unmotivated by politics, just like his counterparts in the college.

Ahmed told me more about his time driving the ambulance after the war: “US troops used to shoot at the ambulance sometimes and three times thieves tried to steal it. The first time the road was blocked by men with guns. I said to them, ‘What do you want? Do you want to steal our wounded people?’ They saw that our clothes were covered in blood and ourr faces were exhausted. The man said no, brother, carry on. I told him I’m not your brother.

“The second time, we were taking one of the nurses back to her home and we were surrounded by armed men, but they let us go when they realised it was an ambulance.
Once we were treating a man injured in a fight between US and Iraqi gunmen. He was bleeding from the head, so we bound the wound. Then I realised he was also bleeding from his arm, so I took off my shirt because I had nothing else to use as a tourniquet.

“Then I found another bad wound in the front of his shoulder, so one of the men who was nearby gave me his head covering and I used that on the wound. There were three US soldiers holding guns to our heads while we were bandaging him. The soldier’s hands were shaking on his gun.

“Two months later, I went to try and find him but it turned out he died. Half his face was gone from dum dum bullets but I hoped I had helped him. They explode, so you don’t always find the bullet in the body and they do a lot of damage.

“I don’t feel like the war lasted 21 days. I feel like it’s been 6 months because I was still seeing bodies and bullet wounds and burns and still being shot at. Every time we went into the hospital to take a wounded person there were more people in the hospital begging us to transport them back home or to take their relative to another hospital because they could only do the emergency treatment there and then they have to go to another hospital. We had to go out and get more people who were injured and try to help the people who needed to go to other hospitals.”

He was exhausted after a sleepless night with helicopters overhead and tanks up and down his street. There was an explosion. He didn’t dare go out to see what it was because he thought it was an attack on the US troops, so they would be shooting at everyone. It was only in the morning that he found out it was a bomb in the house of man who used to be a thief and is now a spy, giving information to the Americans. Half of the house was destroyed but he’d still no idea whether anyone was hurt. It’s dangerous to stop and ask on the way past. And his friend Ali is still in hiding and it still doesn’t feel like the war is over.