How Sanctions Destroy Iraq’s Education System

“During the war, Iraq’s infrastructure was completely destroyed. The devastation was total.”

Dennis Halliday UN Coordinator of Humanitarian Aid to Iraq

In the morning, as our bus drove through the streets of Baghdad, our delegation was able to get a close-up view of conditions in the city. I noticed a number of interesting things. I saw two motorcycle officers on large Japanese motorcycles. They wore helmets and polished boots. They were very clean–very professional in appearance. I was sort of surprised to see them. There were some relatively large traffic jams. The freeways were nice and very modern, but without lanes. The driving was chaotic. Earlier in the morning, an old Chevrolet sedan had sideswiped our bus. The two drivers had stopped to yell at each other for a minute, then drove their separate ways. The cars we se saw were mostly German and Japanese models, all beaten up with fading paint. Almost every car had a badly cracked windshield. Many cars were missing headlights or had none at all. Driving at night can be a very dangerous proposition because many vehicles don’t have headlights. We saw everything from donkeys pulling wooden carts to big Mercedes gasoline trucks belching smoke. I was continually fascinated by the sight of these antique behemoths roaring down the highways or idling in traffic.

The buildings were in a various state of disrepair–chipped paint, rusting signs, weeds, abandoned stores, garages and gas stations. We saw a BMW car dealership, but the parking lot was completely empty. It was like traveling through a place where time had stood still. The clock had stopped on August 6, 1990–the day the economic sanctions were imposed. Amazingly though, the Iraqi people have adapted. Despite twenty years of war, despite the unremitting toll of the strictest blockade in modern history, life in Iraq goes on. The Iraqi people are truly survivors.

At ten o’clock, our delegation arrived in front of Moustanserya University where we were warmly and generously greeted by members of the faculty and student body. As we debarked from the bus, a number of delegates held up signs denouncing U.S. military involvement in the region and chanting “<U.S./UN>, END THE SANCTIONS NOW.”

My goal was to interview as many of these students as possible. I wanted to find out what they thought of the sanctions and how their lives had been impacted by U.S. policies. I wanted to hear about the subjects they were taking and what they thought about the school and the government. I wanted to listen to them and get to know them.

Standing next to me was Samaa Elibyari, an Egyptian-born Canadian from Montreal. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was a lifetime religious and political activist who was involved in numerous projects. She was a radio talk show host and a writer. She was working with the Canadian Islamic Congress. As I came to know her better, she struck me as a woman with a strong moral conscience and a good understanding of Iraq, Islamic culture and the Middle-East in general. I explained to Samaa that I needed a translator so that I could interview the students. I requested her assistance and she agreed to help me.

While the other delegates were standing out front, Samaa and I immediately waded into the group of students in search of an interview subject. We came across Mahmoud Yelya–a foreign student from Yemen. As he spoke to us in English, several students gathered around to listen to him. He was working on his second year at the University and taking computer science and engineering. “There are a lot of Yemenis,” he told us. When asked about the sanctions, he gave us a response that we found very common among the students. “There’s no reason for it,” he explained. Time and time again the students expressed to us an inability to understand why they were the ones who had to be punished by the sanctions and why their education had to suffer for a lack of books or references. Clearly, these students are innocent victims and not only are the Iraqis innocent victims, but the foreign nationals who come to Moustanserya to get an education are victimized as well.

The delegation went inside where we met with the University President who told us about the school and explained the negative impact the sanctions have hand on the educational system.

Moustanserya University is one of the oldest schools in the world with a lineage that goes back at least 800 years. The school has quite a history. During the Gulf War, the campus was damaged by a cruise missile, and in 1980, there was an Iranian assassination attempt on Tariq Aziz who was giving a lecture on the campus–an event that helped precipitate the Iran-Iraq War.

The University currently has about 30,000 students with many of these being foreign nationals. The school is completely subsidized by the Iraqi government for a number of reasons, but mainly so the students won’t have to drop out for financial reasons. The range of classes includes everything from French and physics to computer science and engineering. High grades are required to attend the University. According to the University President, Moustanserya also has a student union with free student elections. The faculty cannot interfere in the election process. As far as the impact of sanctions on the University, the main problem is a severe shortage of educational material. All educational materials are banned by the UN sanctions committee.

After our meeting with the University President, we were invited to go out and mingle with the students and see the campus. Despite ten years of sanctions, the campus was very clean and well taken care of. The general attitude of the students and faculty was very positive. It reminded me very much of the hope and optimism that we have all seen on American campuses. The students were well-dressed and polite–full of vitality and friendly smiles. There are not enough words to describe how pleasant it was to be interacting with these fine individuals.

As Samaa and I interviewed the students, we were given some unique insights into what was happening on the campus. At the top of the list, many of the students expressed a concern about the quality of their education. Their materials were outdated. The references were obsolete. One student showed me a crumbling 1952 calculus textbook he was studying from. We were told that UNSCOM inspectors had entered the central library, confiscated the chemistry books and burned them. This last revelation was very troubling. For many of the students, the education they received at Moustanserya would be their only chance to escape a life of grinding poverty and hopelessness.

Several of the students pointed out the fraudulent nature of the sanctions. “Some people support the sanctions,” a student told us. “Too many people are benefiting from them.” He told us about corruption and how only poor people are affected by the sanctions. The U.S. government was continually “inventing reasons to continue the sanctions,” he said. Another told us “The Iraqi people don’t care about the sanctions. We have to move on despite the sanctions. We have to live our lives.” This gave me the unfortunate impression that many Iraqis were beginning to grudgingly accept the sanctions as a permanent part of their lives.

We talked to a group of young women. They were all incredibly beautiful and well-dressed. Some of them spoke English. They asked me about American culture–Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas. “All of us here like Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas,” one of them proudly declared.

We talked about politics and the Middle-East:

“We don’t like the Zionists,” a young woman told me. “They have come and taken our land.”

“Oh, are you Palestinian,” I asked, somewhat confused.

“No, we are Iraqi, but we support the Palestinians. They are our brothers and sisters.”

She had made a beautiful and remarkable statement on Arab solidarity.

After talking to several more students, a picture began to emerge. The students I had talked to told me that they liked the education they were getting, but that it had been negatively impacted by the sanctions. All of the students seemed genuinely thankful that the Iraqi government was paying for their education. It’s really quite a testimony to the Iraqi educational system–that despite a military blockade, despite the war, the almost daily bombings, the famine, the lack of medicine and the enduring poverty, young students from all around the world still strive to come to Moustanserya University to get an education and better their lives.

The optimism of the students was an extraordinary thing to see. They are faced with difficulties that most of us cannot even imagine. They live in a country that has been wrecked and ravaged by war and sanctions. They have to deal with emotional and financial hardship–family difficulties, stunning unemployment, a nearly complete lack of medical care, outdated educational materials. They are faced with the constant threat of U.S. bombings and renewed American military aggression. And yet, despite all of these obstacles, the young students of Moustanserya University continue to come to school and they continue to learn. They come because they want to better their lives. They want to get their degrees and move on to get good jobs and lead productive lives.

We owe these students and enormous amount of gratitude. They are a reflection of ourselves and of the ability of all of us to persevere in the face of staggering adversity. They are students battling against genocidal sanctions. Their story is an epic and heroic struggle. I hope they succeed.

MICHAEL WOLFF is a San Diego activist and writer who works for the International Action Center and A.N.S.W.E.R. He writes for television and radio. In January of 2001 he traveled to Iraq with Ramsey Clark’s delegation to witness firsthand the effects of war and sanctions on the Iraqi people. He can be reached at: