Baghdad's schoolchildren can't wait for summer to be over

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2008 

WORLD NEWS USIRAQ 2 MCT

Children play soccer in the Jadriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq.

(NICK SPANGLER/MIAMI HERALD/MCT) — Nick Spangler/Miami Herald/MCT

BAGHDAD — Summer vacation in Baghdad is boring. It's dangerous. It's 127 degrees outside and there is nothing to do. It is getting to the point where reasonable people wish school would start again.

"There's nothing to do but sit around," said Tiba Mohammed, a 13-year-old going into the ninth grade. She's one of Iraq's 5.5 million school-age children who are partway through a summer break that began in mid-June and will last until the end of Ramadan in early October. "We have gotten so bored with the computer at this point that we fight over it, but once we sit at it we don't stay more than an hour."

"It's not so nice," said Ghaith Nimia, a 15-year-old boy entering the eighth grade. "If I could go out with my friends, wherever we go together we could have fun."

"There are only two places where we can play," said Hassan Kareem, 15. "I think my parents are too strict."

"They're afraid for our safety," said his brother, Murtatha, 14. "They're afraid because of the explosions."

Iraq's parents have worried through five years of war. And though life here is nowhere near as dangerous as it was in 2006 and 2007 — the daily body count sometimes topped a hundred then, and now entire days pass without the discovery of a single corpse — they still worry.

"We cannot keep them just as before and just forget about them," said Jassim Mohammed, Tiba's father. Tiba has a 17-year-old sister, Nativa, and an 11-year-old brother, Hassan. "They have to be under our eyes now."

The Mohammeds live in Sleikh, a middle-class Sunni Muslim neighborhood in northern Baghdad. The children can leave the house, but not the neighborhood. So no more tennis lessons at the Alwiya Club for Hassan; no more dinners out for the girls and their friends; and many, too many, days at home.

"We go out very little," Hassan said. "I want to go to the club and play there. It's been a long time since I've been."

The electricity is on more than a few hours a day now; when it goes, out, the generator can be started, but it can't run the computer and television if the freezer, the refrigerator and the air cooler are to stay on.

Ghaith, the 15-year-old in Karrada, a mixed Sunni-Shiite district in central Baghdad adjacent to the Green Zone, hasn't left his neighborhood in months. His summer is turning out to be pretty crummy.

"If he wants to play football, he can play until all hours in front of the house, but nowhere else," said Ghaith's mother, Eman. "There's a park just down the road — very nice — but I don't feel happy with him going there because it is a nice place. I have a dreadful feeling it will be targeted."

It would be better if Ghaith's dad, Thafir, were around. He went to Sweden seven months ago, trying to get asylum for the family, and Ghaith misses him.

They used to go down to the Ghazil pet market early on Friday mornings. On the day before Thafir left, they had a big breakfast at Ghaith's uncle's restaurant and spent hours walking around the pet market, looking at the animals for sale.

Then a suicide bomber blew herself up.

"All the carpets got ruined because of the bodies and the blood," Ghaith said. "The pets got killed and one speaking parrot that cost 3 million dinars (about $2,500) got loose and flew away."

So Ghaith was left with his terrified mom, who won't let him leave the neighborhood alone but won't make family trips, either.

Her brother made such a trip with his family the other week, to see the new tigers at Zawra Park.

"He suggested we go with them," she said. "What are you, crazy? Taking all the family so if anything happens, death can take us all?"

There are pickup soccer games all over this city of about 5 million. They were going on before the war, during the worst of the war and they're going on. They start in the early evening and go until dark.

Hassan and Murtatha Kareem were playing in the Jadriyah neighborhood of Karrada one night last week. Fourteen of their friends were out in Real Madrid jerseys and sneakers or sandals or cleats.

The field is a street that was blocked off last year after two car bombs destroyed some houses and part of a hotel.

Cleats were inappropriate for the surface, but if a player has cleats, he uses them.

So there was some excellent passing but also a lot of slipping. There was no interruption at all when gunfire sounded from a few blocks away but a long one when somebody kicked the ball over the blast wall.

"What else would we do, except soccer?" asked Aynen Thair, 13. After a while the game resumed.

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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