Children in tears as their foreign classmates leave Baghdad

 

IRAQ: Tearful students at Baghdad's International School are packing bags and embracing friends and teachers as they get ready to flee Iraq ahead of a feared US air and ground onslaught.

"There have been lots of farewell dinners and many tears shed these last few days," said Dargam, a Jordanian in his final year at the school.

"We promise to meet again but we can't be sure. It's terrible to watch your friends leave." Added Selim, an Iraqi: "There were 18 of us in my class at the start of the year and today we're down to 11. After the Muslim holy days, which start next Tuesday, there will only be five of us left."

The International School, reputed to be the best in the country, was established in 1983 with 900 students. At the start of the current academic year that number had dwindled to 230, representing 38 countries, and had fallen to 133 as of this week.

Its director, Mr Graham Cherry, a 56-year-old New Zealander who worked in international education in New York, Hanoi, San Francisco and Nice before coming to Baghdad, said the school would remain open despite the plunge in attendance. Mr Cherry said the current situation was especially distressing for primary school pupils when they learn that a friend has left.

The first wave of departures came near the end of December, when European students abandoned Baghdad on fears the US would make good on a threat to attack and occupy Iraq to oust President Saddam Hussein and destroy the banned weapons Washington says he is hiding.

They were followed by Asian students and later by those from Arab countries.

"The departures have had a devastating effect," Selim said. "We don't know if we are going to get our diplomas or if we'll have to repeat the year if the war drags on." In an attempt to accelerate the programme, Saturday classes have been arranged in the hope it can be completed by early March.

At the stadium, students in theirsecond-last year were playing soccer.

Of the nine boys and girls on the pitch, five will be gone in the next few days.

"We're carrying on without knowing what tomorrow will bring," said gym teacher Mr Mohammed al-Hyali (39).

The school was built on land near the Baghdad airport provided by the government and has an annual budget of $500,000.

It is administered by a committee of four parents and five others chosen by the UN Development Programme.

Fees are between $2,000 and $2,700 a year, but the 30 Iraqi students, diplomats' children who began their education abroad, pay only a token sum.

Instruction is in English, and follows a British curriculum, supplemented by compulsory courses in Arabic. - (AFP)