Scholars Feel Helpless as They See Their Campus Destroyed

New York Times
by Marc Santora
May 19, 2003

BASRA, Iraq, May 12 Every morning, the professors and students come to Basra University and watch one more donkey pull one more load of loot from the place.

Every morning, they stand around and look at the wreckage of what was once one of Iraq's two premier institutions of higher learning and ask: How? Why?

How, they ask, could allied forces have allowed criminals to violate Basra University, picking it apart book by book, chair by chair, brick by brick?

Why, they ask, has no one, in the weeks since the fighting stopped, come to help them put the pieces back together or at least provided the security for them to do it themselves?

"I have seen all the attention artifacts thousands of years old have gotten," Prof. Abbas Ebadi said. "But this was where we trained young minds for the future."

In allowing the destruction of the university, he said, allied forces taught everyone in this city a simple lesson: "Nobody cares about the Iraqi people."

Despite years of oppression under Saddam Hussein's rule, a decade of sanctions that choked the life out of southern Iraq, and a war with neighboring Iran, Basra University remained one of the few things that seemed to function well here, according to students and teachers. It has long been a source of pride for Basra, a city of 1.5 million people.

Now, a library that professors say contained two million volumes dating back to 1015 is a mess of twisted metal shelves atop ashes from the books set ablaze by looters.

The blue dome that professors say housed the oldest astronomy department in the Middle East is still there, but inside there is nothing but rubble. The law school, the economics department, the art school, the Arabic studies wing all are ruined. The damage goes beyond what would be caused in mere burglary, crossing over into wanton destruction.

British military officials have said that securing the university was not their prime focus, given the limited troop strength they had to secure the city and all its vital infrastructure, like power stations, water treatment plants and oil refineries.

As the British made their way into the city on April 6, they did encounter some Iraqi soldiers at the university, and one British soldier was killed in fighting there, said Brig. Graham Binns, whose Seventh Armored Brigade was responsible for taking Basra.

However, little damage was done to the campus in the fighting.

Once the British realized that the Iraqi resistance had for the most part evaporated, they quickly had to focus on the looting and crime that enveloped the city.

"The banks were being raided, the food warehouses attacked," said Brigadier Binns. "We quickly had to focus on those things we could rebuild in the short term."

Although at one point the British had troops stationed at the university, Brigadier Binns said his soldiers were soon confronted by a mob of people. "I couldn't stop it without shooting the looters," he said, "and I was not prepared to do that."

So the looters took over, and they have continued to have their way with the place.

Having taken all the visible items of value, they have moved to digging up underground cables and pulling out windows for the metal in the frames. They come in the evening and threaten to kill any university staff members who would bother them.

"They take the stuff and sell it on the thieves' market," said Ahmed, a looter who was using the preferred getaway vehicle a large cart pulled by a donkey.

Prof. Hamid Hamdan said he was done trying to plead with the criminals. "These people do not understand what they are doing," he said. "It is the responsibility of the occupying powers to give us order."

The professor, a historian, said the British should have expected the kind of looting that followed their entry into the city.

"When they came in 1914, the people looted much the same way they do now," he said. "But then, the British tried to stop them. Now they do as they please."

So it continues. With no international groups approaching university authorities about rebuilding, and with no security outside campus because there is really nothing left to guard, and with a country so riddled with problems that finding time to deal with this one is not likely any time soon, the professors and students still come every morning.

They look at classrooms where they used to sit and sift through the rubble. They say they feel helpless but are trying not to lose hope.

One student, waving his arm at the wreckage, said all of it could be destroyed. Then he pointed to his mind, saying, "This, they cannot destroy."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company