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Broken links in Iraq

About the author
Maura Stephens has been a professional journalist and editor since 1977.

Two years ago I spent about four hours in the presence of a man I’ll call B. Such was his impression on me that hardly four hours have passed since that day when he has not been in my thoughts.

B was at the time dean of the college of arts at the University of Mosul in the historic city some four hours north of Baghdad. The university is approximately the size of Cornell University in my hometown of Ithaca, New York, with about 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students studying in eighteen colleges.

Also by Maura Stephens on openDemocracy:

“Letter to my Baghdad friends” (June 2005)

It was early July 2003, a little over two months since George W Bush had declared victory in Iraq and an end to major hostilities. The University of Mosul, like hundreds of other colleges, libraries, schools, and museums, had been looted on Friday 11 April, two days after the “fall of Baghdad.”

The place was decimated that day. Everything down to the switch plates on the walls was ripped out. The language labs used to house tape machines and lesson books for students to practice their language skills in English and French. There was nothing left. The professors’ office doors were smashed in. All their meagre books, the office telephones, and their personal effects, including one young English professor’s only copy of her wedding photo, were taken.

From the classrooms and administrative offices, everything – computers, copiers, phones, printers, books, papers, lightbulbs, desks, chairs, ceiling fans – was gone within a couple of hours. The dean and the professors told us they hadn’t recovered anything, and they hadn’t received one scrap of paper’s worth of assistance.

The dean’s April

For an Iraqi who’d spent so many years under Saddam Hussein, Dean B was a well-travelled man. He had been in Europe and earned his doctorate in literature at an American university. His English was almost Oxford-perfect, and his delivery was modulated but passionate. We could see the pain in his face as he described his shock and disbelief on that terrible Friday morning, when as he drove to his office he witnessed scores of people running from campus with the university’s machines, books and educational materials.

“I tried to speak with some of them”, he told us. “I called out to them, asking Why? Why are you stealing from the Iraqi people? Why are you taking the little we have? They laughed. They just kept going. They knew we were helpless to stop them.” Tears rolled down his cheeks, and down the cheeks of the other professors in the room, who nodded as he spoke.

“I did not recognise any of these people. I searched their faces, but they were not known to me. Later in the streets of the city I saw them selling our copying machines and fax machines for $10! They were worth hundreds. They did not even receive a tenth of what they were worth. So I ask, what did anybody gain from this? I have no answer to that question.”

We do not know who they were. I have a theory, that they were a mixture of different elements. First, there were foreign agitators, people who hate Saddam Hussein and wanted revenge on Iraq, people like the Kuwaitis and Iranians. They have a legitimate complaint about Iraq; after all, we invaded their countries. But this was not the way to seek revenge – by stealing from the young people of Iraq, the students, who had nothing to do with the fighting and killing.

Next, there were the criminal elements. Remember, Saddam Hussein emptied the jails last October. Those were the worst people from Iraqi society – thieves, murderers, rapists. He just let them go. I think he had a plan to have them create problems for society and terrorise the people. And last, I think that ordinary people were caught up in the events; they went along. I think you call it crowd mentality. People who under normal circumstances would never break the law, never steal anything, were swept up. These people will feel guilt afterward, when they take the time to realise what they have done.”

None of the perpetrators, and none of those who had purchased the stolen items, apparently felt guilt enough to compel them to return any loot. The college of arts, like the rest of the university – all the health sciences, physical sciences, humanities, and professional colleges – was limping along, and somehow they managed to finish out the school year. The students were preparing for graduation the next day, only seven weeks after schedule. That was quite remarkable, considering they’d been shut down for a month during the invasion and had to finish the semester without books or supplies. The students we spoke with said that this was accomplished just by sheer willpower of the dean and the professors.

Why did he stay here under these circumstances, I asked Dean B. Surely, with his credentials, he could find work outside of Iraq? “I wonder too, sometimes”, he replied. “I have thought about it for many hours, many anguished hours. I have discussed it with my wife. But my heart is here, with these professors and students. How little we have, how little they have to look forward to. Now, I think, now we may have a chance to build a society, to get recent educational materials, to catch up with the rest of the world. You must remember, we are more than twelve years behind everyone, because during the sanctions we were not able to get knowledge from the outside world. My place is here, and I will stay to try to rebuild what we should have.”

It is true that every student praised the dedication and determination of the dean and the professors.

“Iraq is the home of education”, said Dean B. “So much was developed here. The Iraqi people are proud and have withstood so much. Life is very hard here. But I believe that now we may at last have the chance to take control of our own destiny. We need help from the outside, from the NGOs and humanitarian organisations and other countries’ governments.”

To date the only NGO that had visited the university was Norwegian Church Aid. “They pledged ceiling fans”, said Dean B. “But we have not yet received them. We have no money to purchase any ourselves, so I went to a vendor – suddenly there are vendors of fans and air conditioners and other appliances everywhere, when before there were none. I asked the man if he would sell me eight fans on credit. He did.”

The dean had a meeting, so he excused himself and sent us off with students and faculty members to view classrooms and language labs, in which the dean himself had helped to set up the new fans. He did not take one for his own office; it was more important, he insisted, that the students be as comfortable as possible when they were studying. The fans were huge and loud, but effective at keeping the air moving. Although it was much cooler here in Mosul than in Baghdad – about 125 degrees Fahrenheit – we were glad of the relief they provided.

We’d brought a few English books donated by friends from the United States. The dean graciously accepted them, and consented to pose for a photo so we could show the donors that the books had arrived at an Iraqi university. We promised to collect books and ship them to him, and we exchanged email addresses. I found it hard to leave; there was so much more I wanted to learn here.

A bridge to Mosul

As soon as I returned home I sent out a call for help collecting books for the University of Mosul college of arts. It was one thing I knew I could do easily, as I work at a university and have connections at many others. High school classes where I made presentations about Iraq began collecting, too. I was in irregular touch with Dean B by email, and I excitedly told him about the progress we were making. He reported that things were much the same, there was still little in the way of equipment or supplies or books.

By October my office at work and living room at home were overflowing with donated textbooks. The hard part would be getting them shipped to Iraq. I managed to get space in a container load of goods that a humanitarian NGO was sending by ship. I earmarked our section for the University of Mosul. First it was November, then December, then January before the goods would ship. I tried to contain my impatience when dealing with my contact at the NGO; I knew it wasn’t her fault.

Finally she confirmed that the ship had embarked; the goods would probably not arrive in Baghdad before late March 2004, and then who knows how long it would take to get the books to Mosul. It would be closing in on a year from the time I’d promised Dean B to send him books. He told me not to feel bad; nobody else had sent any books either – not the Coalition Provisional Authority, not states or educational organisations in the US, not any of the other coalition countries, not even the United Nations or other NGOs.

Meantime, more donated books were coming in, as well as healthcare items like bandages, crutches, vitamins, baby wipes, and over-the-counter medicines. How was I ever going to find a way to ship these goods to Iraq? Nobody was sending cash with which to ship the things, and cash was already in short supply in my household. I’d ask B what he thought, after the first shipment arrived. Was it worth it to him for me to hold onto these things and send them when I could?

But alas, suddenly B was not answering my emails. I could not call him; the landlines did not work and he’d never even given me his phone number. “It would be a waste of time and just frustrate us both”, he’d said, smiling. So I have no way to get hold of him.

In the long months since then I send him an email every month or so, hoping for a reply but receiving none. Every time another disaster is reported from Mosul I frantically search the news for any mention of a dean of the college of arts, or indeed of Mosul University. The news, of course, is hardly news—just vague reports of “23 Iraqis killed in Mosul,” “16 people killed at a marketplace,” “27 killed when a car bomb exploded,” “31 killed in separate incidents,” and so forth.

The students and faculty of the college of arts at Mosul University depended on Dean B; he is a tremendous role model for his strength, resilience, adaptability, outward serenity, personal commitment, and thoughtful intelligence. Without him I fear not only for his family but for all those Iraqis at the university whose hope lies in access to education and looking toward the future.

I hope to find him alive and well, but the words he spoke to me during our all-too-brief encounter make me fear the worst. He said: “I think I should stay here in Mosul. There is so much to do to help the Iraqi people.”

The emails do not bounce back. I keep hoping that somehow the entire university has switched to a new email system; that soon there will be a way to call directly and speak directly to the dean, who is still there and well; that maybe he decided to take up one of those offers from an institution outside the country. I hope most of all that he reads this and gets in touch with me.


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