Imagine how Americans would feel if a foreign military helping security in the US held 800 US juveniles in custody. Of course the Iraqi govt. has no say in this. The juveniles are held most of them without charge and some of them for over a year already. Conditions are so bad in Iraq that some of the families seem reasonably happy in that the kids are getting security and three square meals etc.
United States detain nearly 800 juveniles in Iraq
BAGHDAD: US troops are holding nearly 800 children and teenagers on a Baghdad base, boys who are largely illiterate and picked up for allegedly planting bombs and now the focus of a multi-million-dollar education project.
Dressed in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of the uniforms of terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, the youngsters aged 10 to 17 attend a US-run school seven days a week, eight hours a day, in order to mend their ways.
Equipped with four football pitches, 18 classrooms and a library, the school is stocked with television sets, DVDs, Harry Potter in Arabic, text books, white boards, rows of desks and chairs, and hot lunches.
Running around barefoot on the stony sports field, trousers rolled to their knees and kicking a ball around, they shriek with delight as American soldiers stand watch from a guard tower next to giant blast walls.
Inside, soldiers stand with pepper spray ready, sunglasses clamped round their heads, keeping watch as civilian Iraqi teachers try to instil basic grammar and arithmetic into teenagers who can barely read or write.
“Where are the mountains in Iraq?” asks the teacher in a geography class for around 30 largely enthusiastic boys aged 11 to 13. One boy scrapes back his chair on the concrete floor. “North of Baghdad,” he chirps, plopping down pleased with himself in a line of pubescent boys proudly sporting downy fluff on their upper lips.
The number of overall security detainees in Iraq has skyrocketed in the six months since General David Petraeus flooded the nation with thousands more soldiers, to lift the total to 165,000 American troops, designed to quell the sectarian conflict and insurgency.
Some 16,000 detainees were in custody before this “surge” in troop numbers. Today there are 24,000 security detainees according to the US military. This year so far only 2,251 detainees have been convicted.
Soldiers are now picking up more than 100 youngsters a month, up from an average of 25 a month last year. On Feb 1, there were 272 youth detainees. This week there were 787, said Captain John Flemming.
US commanders say most of them — which include some as young as 10 years — are caught making and planting roadside bombs, or acting as lookouts for bombers and snipers. Others carry guns. Some are fighters.
Families are able to visit but for some it’s simply too dangerous for them to risk their lives to come to Baghdad. And despite this being against the law, 16 juveniles have been held for more than a year.
Major General Douglas Stone, the US commander of security prisons in Iraq, says all the youths in detention are direct security threats.
But he is determined to follow up counter-insurgency on the battlefield with a timetable of sports, Arabic, English, maths, science, geography and civics to combat the ignorance that provides fertile ground for extremists.
“It may be the only US detention facility for youth in the world. We hope to build two new progressive facilities for adults before the end of the year and can expand if we need to,” says Stone.
First Lieutenant Robert Glenn, the education programme administrator, says that once teachers’ salaries are paid, psychiatrists and other experts brought in, the project “could run into millions” of dollars.
Woken up at 5:00 am, the juveniles are driven to the school in 10 buses for 7:30 am from Camp Cropper, where all youths in US custody are held in Iraq.
Although Sunnis — the majority here — and Shias live separately, they are educated and pray together at the school, where they serve themselves hot lunches of stew and rice, vats of steaming sweet tea and flat bread.
Huda — an adopted name because she fears endangering relatives left in Baghdad — left five children behind in Illinois more than two years ago to teach juveniles, first in a one-room trailer and now in the brand-new school.
Desperately worried for their future, she nurtures them as her own, pities their tales of loss and tries to foster basic skills and values such as freedom and democracy.
“Lots of them have lost their fathers, older brothers, mothers killed in front of their eyes. They tell me their stories everyday,” she says, her smile warm under her red and yellow-flowered headscarf.
“Many of them have never been in school before. They don’t even know how to write their names.
“Some of them did bad things. Most of them say “we got captured randomly’ or because their fathers and their uncles and their brothers were captured.”
Karim, an Iraqi-born cultural advisor, said he was shocked by levels of illiteracy that he had never encountered growing up in the south when Iraq was the most educated country in the Middle East.
Today some 100 young “extremists” — defined by Karim as hardcore supporters of the insurgency who believe that infidels should die and who berate prison guards as “Jews” and “pigs” — are excluded from the school.
Last December, Glenn remembers how youths such as these incited trouble that saw concrete flung around and a toilet block smashed, in disturbances involving the entire youth detainee population.
Yet for those who are being educated, it remains unclear whether they will attend the “House of Wisdom” long enough to make a difference, despite reported enthusiasm from parents happy for their boys to be kept in comparative luxury.
Huda worries that mass unemployment and war spell a miserable future for her young charges, who will be released into a frightening world.
The average juvenile is 16-years-old and held for 133 days — not long enough to make a difference in a life-time of next to no education.
In art, they draw pictures of date palms and Iraqi flags with heart warming slogans such as “All Iraq united, Sunnis and Shias together” and “Yes to democracy, yes to freedom, no to blood and no to killing people”.
“But when I say they should report bad people, they say “we are scared to report. They will kill us’,” says Huda.