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Posted: 5/26/2003 9:47:39 PM EDT
[url]http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-05-26-saddamgeneration-usat_x.htm[/url] 'Saddam generation' waking up By Vivienne Walt, USA TODAY BAGHDAD — Abather Kareem recently spent six nights sleeping in a room on Baghdad University's campus, just so he could scrub the classrooms and clear war debris from the grounds by day. At 25, it's about the most exciting thing Kareem has ever done. He and his friends have begun their own form of activism. They're creating a newspaper and pasting the faces of Iraqis executed by Saddam Hussein's regime on campus walls. Kareem acknowledges he is a product of what Iraqis call "the Saddam generation": Iraqis born since Saddam Hussein became president in 1979. "We've seen nothing of the world. We've had no connection with what was going on," Kareem says. "We just want to break out of the cage that Saddam Hussein created for us." After 24 years of Saddam's suffocating tenure, Iraq's youth are waking up from an almost-comatose state. During Saddam's nearly quarter-century in power, his Baath Party and secret police monitored virtually every adult, looking for signs of dissent. Those who stepped out of line by criticizing Saddam or challenging the party were quickly reported to higher-ups. Hundreds of thousands were arrested. Millions left. Saddam's obsessive power failed to stir strong emotions or loyalty, many young Iraqis say. Most say they accepted the system because they had no choice. Now, many are taking their first tentative steps towards an activism based on their true feelings and beliefs, not those of the Baath Party and Saddam. The Baath Party's focused on Iraq youth because youth were regarded as more reliable followers of the "Great Leader" than their parents, who knew Iraq before Saddam. Beginning at age six, schoolchildren began every class by standing at attention when the teacher entered and chanting: "Long live President Saddam Hussein!" An hour or so a day was spent learning Baath Party ideology and Saddam's sayings, packaged in a mandatory course called "National Education." Classes stressed the value of Arab socialism, the underpinning of Baath Party ideology. A photo of Saddam was pasted in each textbook and school journal and on every classroom wall. Children were taught about the glories of the war against Iran in the 1980s, in which about 400,000 Iraqis and 600,000 Iranians perished. They learned about Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which sparked the 1991 Gulf War. Baath Party teachings also promoted the idea of one unified Iraqi clan. To promote that idea, the government abolished family names in the 1970s. Since then, children's birth certificates have recorded only the baby's and the father's first names. Saddam appointed his son Uday to oversee youth activity, including "youth centers" across Baghdad that residents say operated largely as party recruiting halls for teenagers. Uday also ran the Voice of Youth radio, luring youth with music mingled with pro-Saddam messages and news. Teachers were required to be Baath Party members. They accepted that their students would join the party before long. About 5% of the population became members, but the percentage was much higher among university students. Those who did not join were marked as potential troublemakers. While youth across the globe were learning to surf the Web and traveled the world on cut-rate airlines, even elite young Baghdadis from professional families remained ignorant of the world. The Saddam generation was shut off even more when international sanctions were imposed after the Gulf War. The Internet arrived in Iraq two years ago. Access was tightly controlled, and Saddam's officials blocked news and cultural sites. "There's just no point of comparison with our generation," says Lamia Jamal, 48. Her 21-year-old son Nawar Faisil is nearby as she speaks in their upscale home in west Baghdad. "We traveled. We read. Nobody ever forced us to join a stupid party," the mother of four says. Jamal spent four years during her twenties studying Spanish in Madrid. She later worked at the Spanish Embassy in Baghdad. Married to a jewelry trader, Jamal and her family live well. Yet her son Nawar has traveled only once, to neighboring Jordan. He is the only one of his friends who has ever left Iraq. "The regime was poisonous for all intellectual thought," says Andrew Erdman, the U.S. senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education. "It's hard to even compare that to anywhere else." Erdman says officials of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance regarded it as urgent to bring foreign academics and teachers to Iraq to expose people to new ideas. 'A blindfolded mentality' A French professor at Baghdad University says it could be years before the Saddam generation is freed from the limitations of its upbringing. "They have a blindfolded mentality," Ala Al-Faqri says in French. "They feel they have no future. It's been a real problem to teach them. They have no imagination." Young Iraqis say the imposed isolation was not the worst part of Saddam's youth strategy. Rather, it was the feeling that they could trust no one. Several say they became accustomed to living continually on edge. The reason: Anyone — a sister, a brother, a neighbor or playmate — could betray someone to party officials as disloyal or a dissident. While not outwardly encouraged, turning friends in to officials was applauded when it occurred. Most vulnerable to betrayal were youth who chose not to join the Baath Party. "The few of us who didn't join were regarded as different," says Haider Jawad, 21, a second-year irrigation-engineering student at Baghdad University. He says his father, chief pediatrician at Baghdad's Al-Alwiyah Hospital, insisted that his children resist the pressure to join the party, despite the risks. Haider says he learned to cover himself. "We called Saddam Hussein 'Baba Saddam' (Daddy Saddam) when we spoke to other kids," he says. "We were brought up in fear and panic," says Mohammed Karim, 23. The petroleum engineering graduate with a dimpled smile was hired this month as a reporter for the Iraqi Media Network, the new U.S.-funded television channel. He says he's still learning how to speak freely after growing up only with Saddam-controlled television. "We never knew who might report us if we said something," Karim says. "We were scared of everyone, even our best friends. Our whole generation is brainwashed. It's going to take us time to adapt." Abather Kareem — who helped clean the university campus — says he and his friends are finally beginning to move beyond their past. On May 10, Kareem and seven friends founded the Free Students Group. They pasted on campus walls photocopies of those killed in jail under Saddam. Last week, they printed 5,000 copies of their first student newspaper. It carried news of the election for the first non-Baathist university president in decades. "Saddam Hussein slaughtered the ambition inside us," Kareem says. "Day by day, we're slowly starting to take some responsibility for ourselves."
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