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Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post
Unseen Iraq

Exam Day at a Baghdad Girls' School

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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, May 19, 2008

Slouched over her exam, Amna Ra'ad chews on her pencil eraser and looks out at a walled courtyard.

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In her classroom, teachers patrol rows of girls in uniform dresses, eyeing their progress. The seventh- and 10th-graders at the Otha bin Ghazwan Secondary School for Girls reach for their desktop tools. Rulers, pencils, pens and sharpeners flank their flimsy blue stapled notebooks littered with eraser dregs and pencil shavings. In 15 minutes, their time is up.

The sounds of war seep through the closed windows.

Two sirens wail. One pulses, stationary. The other fades. Black Hawks circle low, rattling the windows. Men are protesting on the main road about 200 yards away, chanting in a slow walk with banners and flags.

On some days, the murmur of the air conditioner masks the sounds. But today, the first day of exams, there is no electricity.

Amna, 16, wants to be an engineer. She complains with teenage confidence about the lack of places to hang out after school. Her voice becomes hushed when she talks about the more serious hurdles the students face.

Located near the Green Zone, the school's neighborhood is a frequent target of suicide bombings. There have been three this year. The last one, in March, shattered windows on the second floor. Two students have died in mortar attacks.

"I don't like school anymore. I have no motivation. I don't feel comfortable here. It's dangerous," Amna says in semi-fluent English after her test has been collected and the other girls are leaving the room.

She is just old enough to remember school before the war.

"We went on trips to amusement parks like Baghdad Island, the martyr monument, the astrological museum, the zoo, celebrations for Saddam's birthday," she says. "Now there are no field trips."

She remembers picking up Coke and shwarma on the way home from school. The restaurant is now closed, its windows broken.

Amna is popular. Several friends are waiting for her in the courtyard. She joins them outside and frets over her test answers.

Before stepping outside the school compound, she wraps a scarf around her head stylishly, tucking in an end near the side of her face. She is beautiful, with high cheekbones and wide eyes.

Then, linking arms with a smiling friend, she passes the guards and walks straight home.

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