Students at Anbar University in Ramadi and Fallujah are caught between a Shiite government that treats them like traitors and ISIS fighters who consider their studies proof of their support for Baghdad. Meanwhile, factional fighting has reduced the university to ruins and terrorized academics.
Students at Anbar University in Ramadi and Fallujah do not know from which side their death will come. In January, fighters linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept through Anbar province in a dramatic prelude to their victories in Mosul six months later. Since then, the campus has become a target for government artillery and airstrikes against Sunni extremists said to be operating in the area, even as students attempt to continue their studies. Constant skirmishing between various armed factions have left the university in ruins, and academics in terror.
At the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, the fight for Anbar represents a microcosm of the struggle for control of Iraq’s future. The destruction of academic infrastructure is a poignant example of the generation lost into the whirlwind of internecine conflict and civil war. Intellectuals have been marginalized within this conflict as their country dissolves, their voices largely silenced. Over 600 university professors have been assassinated since 2003, although exact figures are difficult to determine – Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor compiling statistics on targeted Iraqi professors, was shot for his work. Today, students rely on a shrinking group of professors willing to face the deadly risks of working in an Iraqi classroom.
The reasons for their flight are painfully clear in Anbar, and highlight the hopeless situation in which many academics find themselves. Students there have watched this tragedy replay in terrifying fast-forward over the last nine months, illustrating in real time the historical trends shaping the country’s higher education landscape. Initial interviews with students in Ramadi have revealed the complexity of their predicament. Yet their stories remain unshared, largely because they fall into the analytical no-man’s land between warring factions. Government forces portray them as supporters of Sunni terrorism, while extremists regard their studies as a sign of support for Baghdad. Both sides, through actions and words, have indicated they prefer the academics to remain silent.
Eight months ago, students and professors joined a broader movement centered in Ramadi’s outskirts to protest the government’s pro-Shiite sectarian policies. In December 2013, then-Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered his security forces to dismantle the yearlong sit-in camp. He claimed that the demonstrators had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, although this group had been largely expelled from Iraq by Sunni tribes during the Anbar Awakening in 2006 and 2007. Studies were immediately halted on direct orders from the Higher Education Ministry, an enormous surprise to Anbari students who had yet to complete their academic year.
“These were all peaceful protests,” Ahmed, a fourth-year student who had been evacuated from Fallujah during the 2006 fighting, recalls, “but after government forces entered the camps – commonly called ‘the places of honor and dignity’ – chaos prevailed.” Some students participated in these protests calling for the release of Sunni prisoners detained arbitrarily and without trial. These grievances highlighted deeper resentment amongst Anbari communities of their political exclusion from the Shiite-led central government. Maliki’s police and army only reinforced this image of victimhood.
In January, less than a month after these security operations began, a ragtag group of ISIS-led fighters capitalized on the resulting fury and seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Their swift seizure of Iraqi territory, under-covered by international media, served as a dangerous prelude to more dramatic actions in Mosul six months later. Without the means or support to confront this loss, Maliki quarantined the province and laid virtual siege to its two main cities.
For university personnel, the result was disastrous. “Studies stopped for over five months,” Ahmed explains, “due mainly to the daily artillery bombardments and lack of security.” He remembers organizing, “on a good day,” a group of 15 students – out of his 70-person class – on campus for instruction. “We were all male students; we would inform our female colleagues to stay home until we ensured the situation was secure. In general, students from our department and across the university waited the results of our efforts and for news about the university from us.”
The risks are enormous, but in the beginning many tested the limits they imposed: “We were encouraged in our attempts by the fact that bombardments would normally occur during the night, while in the morning, the situation was calm enough to resume our work,” Yasir, a final-year student, recalls. Between January and March, the campus was struck by over 40 missiles from government positions across the Euphrates River. Government shelling destroyed most roads leading to the university, constricting traffic to one heavily policed and overcrowded bridge. “All the guns, heavy or light, were pointed at the university,” Yasir said, “and we were shelled often.” It was so difficult to travel across the city to study during 2013-2014 that over 800 students were crammed into dormitories designed for only 500. Yasir shared a room four meters square with eight colleagues.
The campus bore terrifying similarities to a prison. “The government claimed our university harbored terrorists,” Ahmed said with poetic flourish, “but our only weapon was the love of knowledge and our pens.”
Often such protection was not enough. In June, just before the start of departmental examinations, Ahmed heard about a female colleague named Sama, a second-year student, shot to death by a government sniper. “Before the start of the exam, there was heavy shelling on the campus, but this did not deter us from completing our exams,” he said. “Sama’s female colleagues collapsed at the scene of her murder, while her male colleagues rushed to save her life. They failed. She was hit directly in the chest, and died.” During her funeral, a local representative of Anbar’s governor claimed Sama was killed by a “bad colleague who had infiltrated the students’ ranks.” Sama’s classmates and other students from the university rejected the accusation, and left the funeral in protest against this false accusation. “We have filed many complaints, but no investigations have been conducted,” Ahmed said. Since June, two more attacks were made on the university, and another student died while others were injured.
On the same day Sama was shot, another sniper targeted the student dormitories. “Our trust in the army and police was lost,” Yasir said. “Their aim was to terrorize us, students and staff members alike.” The next day, exams were suspended. It was an unnecessary precaution: “the majority of students did not attend because they feared Sama’s fate. Although the whole Anbar population was targeted by the Iraqi Army, we occupied a special place in their sights because of our university uniform.”
The constant attacks deprived students like Yasir and Ahmed of a political or academic voice, and left them without an avenue to express their grievances. In the past, students from violent areas have been relocated to universities in safer provinces. In Anbar, the Higher Education Minister instead declared the entire 2013-2014 academic year “postponed” – it will thus be considered “unfailing,” but students cannot claim any academic credit from their studies. The few students who were relocated to institutions in Baghdad, Ahmed claims, have been arrested by the intelligence services. It is impossible to verify his assertions, but they nonetheless speak to a deep sense of abandonment by the central government.
“I feel that I am a citizen of the 10th class in Iraqi society, not even a second-class one. Fear and ill-confidence fills me up due to the arbitrary bombing and destruction of our city, on the pretext of combating terrorism,” Ahmed said.
Yasir sighs in agreement. These political machinations in Baghdad mean his “hard work will have withered into thin air.”
“University life is supposed to be the most beautiful time in the studying life of any student,” Ahmed said. “But because of the critical security situation, I and my friends would repeat the phrase of the holy Koran that says we must face that which is written upon our destiny by almighty God.”
Yasir presents a starker image: “Do you know that when we see each other we smile and say, ‘I was not expecting to see you anymore?’ When we part, we say farewell believing that we will not see each other again.”
His dejection is justified. On August 28, Ibrahim Hamad, the dean of agriculture at Anbar University, was assassinated by a sticky bomb attached to his car. Continued government shelling pushes students further into the no man’s land between Baghdad and ISIS-controlled territory. And on June 5, militants breached the university’s walls, abducting 1,200 students and professors. Although the hostages managed to escape with the help of neighbors, armed groups have since seized the entire campus, and heavy battles are still taking place among the academic buildings.
Although Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared a cessation of air force bombardment in civilian areas this month, it is too soon to tell whether artillery, mortar, small arms and targeted attacks will continue. Incredible threats from extremist elements also remain for academics refusing to renounce their secular studies.
Iraq’s young generation of students has been destroyed, a story presented in no clearer terms than throughout Anbar. Here is one of the country’s greatest tragedies, playing fast-forward on a provincial stage. Yet few in the international community have paid this deterioration its due attention.
Yasir understands his abandonment. “The main motive for me to risk my life was to achieve the degree I had dreamed about my entire life,” he said. “I was raised in a society that valued those with high degrees. Our religion and prophet advise us to pursue knowledge. But after 15 years, I could not complete my final year at university.” As of this writing, no official arrangements have been made for the new school year, set to begin this September.
Both Yasir and Ahmed bitterly conclude, “Our future is unknown.”
Authors’ note: We would like to express our deep gratitude to Professor Saad Jawad, former professor of political science at Baghdad University, for his commentary and assistance with this article.