The Poor Condition and High Hopes of University Life in Basrah Today

Hamid K. Ahmed
Visiting Professor at Basrah University
20 October 2003

Basrah University: Burned and Gutted BuildingI studied and taught in Basrah University for eighteen years, from the 1970s through the 1980s. Established in 1964 near the Persian Gulf coast in Iraq's second-largest city, Basrah University was once the envy of the Arab world and Middle Eastern higher education. Its reputation was well deserved. Professors published a large number of research papers every year, and students from around the region flocked to its graduate research programmes. As early as 1977, while studying for my Master's degree in marine biology, I was already using online services - I could order documents and papers electronically straight from the Library of Congress, an innovation still lacking in many western universities even a decade later.

Unfortunately, after 1979, the government diverted all scientific research to satisfy its evil intent and thirst for acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and fulfilling the ruler's dream of controlling the Arab world. Right at the start of his reign, (while Basrah University was still new), Saddam Hussein provoked an eight-year war with Iran. Because Basrah was close to the Gulf and the border with Iran, the war destroyed the city, particularly the University. Our staff and students were under immense pressure to continue their teaching and learning duties despite the constant bombardment. As it happened, we were on the "wrong side" of the Shatt al Arab - the river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates that flows to the Gulf - and only 12 kilometers from the Iraq-Iran border.

In 1986, the University's College of Agriculture was bombarded, injuring and killing many students and damaging many classroom buildings. We asked the Minister of Higher Education at that time, Samir al-Sheikhly, to move the University's campus temporarily to the other side of the Shatt al Arab. This was purely for the safety of the staff and students and the security of the furnishings and equipment that represented an investment of millions of pounds since the University opened in 1964. The Minister's ignorant answer was, "We Iraqis are not cowards. We would prefer to die rather than move the University campus." It reflected the attitude of his master, Saddam Hussein. A week later, Basrah University was declared a war zone and occupied by Saddam's military elites who cared nothing for science or research. As a result, our infrastructure was destroyed.

In 1988, with the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Basrah City and the University enjoyed two years of peace and rebuilding, but then Saddam invaded Kuwait. This happened two weeks after I left Basrah University to embark on a research program in Britain. This invasion triggered the devastating Gulf War of 1991, followed by defeat and thirteen years of international sanctions. Thus, from 1979 onward, Basrah University had not only suffered from three wars and sanctions, but also from the central government's intentional neglect, oppression and disrespect for higher education.

Conditions at Basrah University Today

Basrah University: Campus WreckageThis year, upon returning to Basrah and the University after thirteen years, I found that the scale of destruction was beyond my comprehension. The damage was not only structural but psychological too.

Talking with my very close friend, Professor S.D. Salman, who is now Chancellor of Basrah University, I found out that the school was in desperate need of everything. The whole internal system of operation - electricity, water, communication, air conditioning, etc. - was gone. Equipment and furniture had been looted. People had set fire to most of the buildings including the libraries in different colleges and departments of the school. The remaining books, journals and research materials were decades out of date.

Professor Salman never thought he'd be in such a position of responsibility, but following the regime change a few months ago, his fellow teachers elected him Chancellor in recognition of his years of sincere dedication to research and academic life. During Saddam's reign, however, Professor Salman had been ignored and neglected, and was not promoted in 34 years of service, because he wasn't a Ba'athist.

Now the tables have turned. After the war this spring, the Coalition Provisional Authority summarily sacked high-ranking Ba'ath party members throughout the country from their jobs; this included fifteen percent of the staff of Basrah University. Because they also occupied houses on campus, Prof. Salman has to physically expel many of his former colleagues from their homes so that there will be room for numerous Iraqi but non-Ba'athist replacement teachers returning from universities in Libya, Jordan, Yemen and other parts of the world. I left him struggling with this problem and begging for help to solve such a dilemma!

Despite all the turmoil, Basrah University and its reorganized college divisions initiated a comprehensive review of its curriculum throughout the country. Institutions of higher education are enjoying a great deal of autonomy compared to previous years when the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research dictated its rigid guidelines and frameworks. Prof. Wail Nouridean Al-Rifaie, Chancellor of Technology University in Baghdad, described this significant change of affairs to a meeting with the Iraqi Reconstruction Group (IRG) in London last month. He referred to the old Ministry as "an elephant on our chest."

During my visit, I also met my old friend, Prof. M.H. Ali, a marine biologist who is the new General Director of the Marine Science Centre. Like Prof. Salman, Prof. Ali was elected to his position by a vote of his colleagues. He is a very dedicated person who suffered greatly under the previous regime. In our student days, both of us had been selected for the University's Master of Science program; based on our merits, I had ranked first in our group and he had ranked second. In the second year of our studies, however, we were told that the University had made a mistake to accept us as students, because we were not party members. What followed was worse and beyond the scope of this article, but Prof. Ali suffered immensely from the regime during the 1990s. He survived, but only at great cost to his health and spirit, and many other staff in the university shared the same suffering.

Basrah University: Ruined BooksProf. Ali showed me around the Centre, which was literally empty of desks, chairs and equipment. From the time of its creation in 1976 and into the 1980s, the Centre used to be a very active part of the University, with up-to-date furnishings, equipment and facilities. It had a very high reputation for research, and maintained a busy schedule of very successful conferences, meetings, workshops and round-table discussions of national and international importance. At one time, the staff published a unique scientific journal in marine sciences, with a very original name--"Marina Mesopotamica"--that became one of the main references for scientific studies on the marshlands and Gulf coastal zone. The scientists I met were euphoric because they had gotten rid of Saddam's regime. Now, they were trying to be optimistic about the future, relying on the conscience of the world to sympathize with their plight and to come help them restore the Marine Science Center to its former condition.

Conditions at the Basrah Technical Institute

Basrah Technical Institute: Looted InteriorI also met the Deputy Dean of Basrah Technical Institute, Dr. Abdul Hafez Aweid, in an old rented building in the center of the city that was serving as temporary facilities. The Institute had to evacuate its main building when it was almost completely destroyed during and after the war. I remembered that when I taught there during the early 1980s it was a state-of-the-art institute; now it had become a ghostlike campus, full of burned buildings, damaged equipment, broken chairs and desks. As the others did, Dr. Aweid asked me for any kind of help to bring his Institute back to life again.

On behalf of all the people I met and promised to help, I dedicate this humble article. I ask the world to come to the aid of Iraq's desperate teachers and students who are thirsty for knowledge and who want to be brought back to their proper and deserved place in the academic circles of the world.

Hamid K. Ahmed
Halton College, Widnes, U.K.

Photos by Ra'id al-Samerra'i

This page was created on December 1, 2003 and revised on December 30, 2003.

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