For U.S. Convoy, Baghdad School Visit Illustrates Challenges
BAGHDADOur convoy leaves the relative security of the so-called Green Zone planning to visit a series of joint U.S.-Iraqi reconstruction projectsincluding an elementary schoolin the city's Ghazaliya district.
But the streets of Baghdad are crowdeda promising sign, especially in the wake of the violence that has gripped the city for months. Traffic is a constant worry in the city, especially with improvised explosive devices a threat to rip apart a concrete curbstone and any flesh or vehicles unlucky enough to be in the blast radius.
The cars come to a standstill when such a device is discovered or something looks suspicious. The Iraqi police, manning checkpoints or directing traffic, are in a constant battle with the trucks, cars, scooters, and mule-drawn carts all fighting to get through. We take the back streets to avoid a traffic jam, which materializes when an unexploded IED is spotted a few hundred meters ahead of our convoy.
An hour later, we arrive at our destination, an $82,000 effort to rebuild and expand the Waddi Al-Qura Elementary School. The project has been underway for nearly three months and is about 30 percent completed, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But there's a problem with the timing of our planned visit to the classrooms.
"There's no school today," says our driver, looking at the crowd of children flocking around our vehicles. Indeed, our convoy stops in front of the gates of the school only to find that they are locked.
The trip took days to plan and reconnoiter. Our convoy carries a carload of backpacks filled with school supplies. But we soon learn that school is closed for a weeklong holiday. Part of the problem seems to be that we could not alert the school to our visit for security reasons, so there was little advance contact with the school administrator.
But adaptation is a way of life in Iraq.
As we check the locked gates, the children suspect that something is afoot and curiously crowd around our parked convoy. Mindful of snipers and the dreaded car bombs, our security team blocks off the road and watches the roofs. The school's security guard, Hadi Naera, makes his way through the 50 or so children of all ages who've come for the spectacle. He opens the gate and our vehicles drive in, parking nose out to facilitate a speedy withdrawal if needed.
The elementary school serves some 900 boys and girls, which translates to about 45 students per classroom, says Naera. We've missed the classes, though, he tells us, as the students are on their midyear holidays.
The school is in considerably better condition than many of the surrounding buildings. The walls are freshly painted, classrooms have been repaired and expanded, and the students have been given new textbooks.
There are crowds of children around our vehicles as the soldiers start handing out the bright-red backpacks; there are about 250 of them. It's a fierce scrum for swag as the childrenand some adultspress forward grabbing for the bags. The children crowd around the visitors, too, asking for pens, sunglasses, candy, food, and anything else they spot protruding from a pocket.
Inside the packs are soccer balls, pencils, and a variety of other school items.
"It's a goodwill gesture with some things that they can use," says Kimberly Mielcarek, a public affairs officer with the corps who helped organize the trip.
The children will be back in school next week.
"Of course they can use these things that you've brought," says Naera. "It's not enough supplies for all of them, but they can share."