U.S. troops help Baghdad University students
Stars and Stripes June 17, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — On Sunday, Santa Claus wore flak vests and desert cammies.
Soldiers arrived on the campus of the University of Baghdad, toting computer equipment and supplies to replenish goods stolen or destroyed by looters after the collapse of the Iraqi regime.
“We’re delivering automation equipment we found in an Iraqi bunker to people who really need it,” said Lt. Col. Joe Fucello, commander of the 16th Engineering Battalion out of Giessen, Germany, part of the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
And students flocked in droves to the beds of the three 5-ton trucks, ready to pitch in and unload their newly delivered treasures.
“This is a total reversal for our mission, a complete reversal,” said 1st Lt. Dion Mancenido. “But it’s something that just comes naturally to us.”
Soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 37th Armor Regiment of the 1st AD originally found the booty of computers, monitors, printers, scanners, reams of paper and other technology gizmos stored in a small room behind a 5-inch steel door in an Iraqi above-ground bunker near the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, Fucello said.
They turned the find over to the Engineering Battalion, which made arrangements to have the valuables delivered to the University of Baghdad, home to about 40,000 students and seven schools.
“What we need are labs, badly,” said Amhed Jaafar, 18, a pharmaceutical student in his first year at the university. “[Looters] destroyed all of them, and now we work under heat with no lights, but we still study. … The situation is sad, and it wasn’t the [U.S.] troops, it was a reaction from the people who lived many years under oppression.”
Marwan Hamed, 25, is part of a 10-student team named the Pioneer Group, a band of students formed April 24 who, armed with AK-47 rifles, patrol the university grounds at night, watching for and confronting would-be looters and robbers.
“One night, they came to a building and they tried to burn [it]. They were threatening us with guns, and we shot at them,” Hamed said.
“This is my college, my home, my country. I love it and I won’t permit any person to destroy it.”
Mustafa Al-Hiti, the dean of the College of Pharmacy, formed the Pioneer Group and said his own 22-year-old son, Omar Al-Hiti, is a member.
“He is a student too, and I wanted them to know that I was not sacrificing them,” Al-Hiti said, meaning putting other students in harm’s way unnecessarily.
Much of the work that has been done to restore the university would not have been possible without the U.S. Army, and Al-Hiti said he owes the military a debt of gratidude.
Fucello has hired six local contractors to install electrical and plumbing equipment, he said.
“Much of the equipment is probably better than what they had before,” he said.
The students were cleaning up the school when Fucello stumbled upon them, he said. They were painting the walls and ditching the buildings of trash left by the looters.
The spirit of the student body is fascinating and contagious, Al-Hiti said. Classes were scheduled to resume May 24, but the student body was eager to return to their studies, so officials opened the doors on May 3. Classes are running a month longer, ending Aug. 1, to make up for the time the university was closed during the war, he said.
“We are very, very proud of the students,” said Dr. May Sidik, a clinical and pharmaceutical professor. But with no air conditioning and sporadic power, the students have a hard time studying, she said.
To replenish the stolen equipment, Al-Hiti is seeking donations from worldwide pharmaceutical companies, and has promises for at least three, he said.