Yesterday’s barbaric bombings that targeted the students of Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University are the latest in a long series of dark stains that will mar the history of Iraqis for a long time to come. It was the first all-out, wholesale targeting of college students whose only sin was attempting to finish their higher education – perhaps to flee the disaster-stricken country later, or to seek better jobs to support their families.
Over 80 students were robbed of their future by fanatics bent on revenge and destruction. No one can fathom what was possibly in the mind of those who planted a car rigged with explosives in a college’s parking lot, where students carrying their lectures and books gather to wait for their minivans and buses, maybe in hopes of returning home to study for tomorrow’s exam, or maybe to share a meal or tea with loved-ones. Nor can we understand what the man who waited, while watching the devastating scene of torn limbs, pools of blood, amid fire and smoke and the smell of burning flesh, and fleeing students after the first explosion, then pressed a button to blow himself up was thinking. What were the perpetrators hoping to achieve?
Can you imagine the scene? Try. Think of your own schools, your own college campuses. Think of how you would feel if your own son or daughter had to go to school in the hell that is called Iraq. Think of what you would do if you heard the news that the school was bombed.
Eyewitnesses said cell phones were still ringing urgently in pockets and purses lying around human body parts. Try to imagine the person on the other line.
A man searched for his son and finally found his head and torso, but no legs. “Where is his other half?” he asked, before he started shaking with violent sobs.
Over here, the above scenes elicit a 20-second sound bite in the news, perhaps immediately followed by dog food or deodorant commercials. At best, politicians would use it in talking points, to justify even more bloodshed and destruction.
Sucked up in a sectarian vortex they can never escape, students in Iraq face enemies from all sides. Sadrist militias took over this particular university a long time ago. Posters of religious symbols filled lecture halls. A black religious flag flew above the university’s main tower. Girls were told to cover up, not just in veils, as was the case last year, but in ‘abayas, or full Islamic body garb. College texts were tampered with. Student unions became fronts for militiamen, who replaced former Ba’athist unions and threatened students and professors alike for any reason. Professors were kicked out, because they were of the wrong sect or political ideology, and many were abducted and assassinated. Just days ago, there were rumours that three female students from the university were kidnapped, tortured and raped before they were killed by militiamen. However, some students insisted to complete their studies, even though attendance rates in Baghdad have fallen to less than 30%. Dozens of academics were abducted and went missing in one recent incident when gunmen in police uniform stormed an educational institution.
As if all that was not enough, Sunni insurgent groups distributed pamphlets recently, calling on college students and professors to boycott their universities. Ironically, they called it a “campaign to support our scientists and students in Baghdad universities.” Students were warned not to attend their classes because universities have turned into headquarters of militias and death squads. “Save the lives of our professors and dear students from the rejectionist government of Maliki and their death squads,” one pamphlet said. “It is prohibited to attend after this announcement.” Another one featured a photo of the very main gate of Mustansiriya University, where the bombings took place yesterday, reading, “From these universities, our scientists graduated. And today they are killed on their gates. There is no solution to stop the bloodshed except by boycotting.” “God willing,” said another, “we will work to cleanse universities from these filthy groups.”
In response to these fliers, PM Maliki, who hides behind the concrete walls of the Green Zone, threatened to expel students and professors that did not continue to attend their schools. Many families decided not to send their kids, anyway, and professors are still trying to flee the country, but many more have no other option but to go on … until the criminals strike.
Both my brother and sister are still college students in Baghdad. I can’t stop thinking of them.