They were still young, and in the illusionary cocoon of their high school, they had not yet learned fear. When the secret police came for Ali Fouad Abdul Ridha, the 17-year-old glanced over his shoulder at his 10-year-old brother, Mohammed, before being hustled away.
"It's like a picture in my head," said Mohammed, his eyes closing as he drifted back to that morning, Sept. 24, 1981. His brother was still wearing slippers and the gown-like dishdasha favored by Iraqi men. His mother was crying. His father was pleading for an explanation. And the police, shouting, were telling them to shut up.
"Ali looked back," Mohammed said. "He was frightened, but on his face, you could see he was also surprised."
Ali never came home. And neither did at least 17 of his classmates at Baghdad's Kadhimiya High School, according to an examination of school and security service records as well as interviews with former teachers, students and prisoners, and relatives of the students who disappeared.
The students were accused of writing anti-government graffiti at their school as part of a broader campaign by a Shiite Muslim opposition group, the Dawa party, to overthrow President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party.
"No one expected this would lead to execution," said Jamal Latif Ridha, whose 17-year-old brother, Sattar, was sent to the gallows at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. "We thought Sattar would be imprisoned for just two or three months. They were just being students." The number of students executed could be as high as 35, but that could not be independently confirmed because of a lack of records and the scattering of families over the years. Former students and teachers said 37 students were arrested, and only two are known to have been released. A reporter was able to establish that 18 students from the school were killed.
The violent crackdown on student dissent at the school in the fall of 1981 was one of the most callous acts of the Hussein government. In the first years of Hussein's rule, it became a cautionary tale in the overwhelmingly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, a community where almost everyone knows someone who was imprisoned or executed. The high school purge established the sheer ruthlessness of a state that would brook no opposition, especially in the education system, where Hussein's personality cult and pledges of loyalty to the Baath Party infused the curriculum.
At Kadhimiya High School, where some teachers and students were complicit in the other students' fate, the staff today is divided between those who want to forget or deny the past and those who insist on a historical accounting. As a new school year began this month with orders to rid the education system of all references to the former government, teachers muttered darkly about each other's political loyalties and the events of 1981.
"Some people will tell you nothing happened," said Waleed Kareem Khamis, a social studies teacher, in a whispered aside, "but this school was terrorized."
The deputy principal in 1981, Abdul Razaq Ameen, said: "I don't know anything about it. I never heard of any students being executed." In initial interviews, both the principal and the registrar also denied any students were executed, but later conceded that there may have been arrests away from the school grounds.
In the yellowed school rolls from that year, it is noted only that certain students were expelled for failure to attend class. "How were we supposed to know what happened?" said Fatma Ghulam, the registrar.
But with the fall of Iraq, the past pulls at them like a riptide. The memory of 1981 swirls through the school's decaying classrooms, finally forcing both teachers and students to confront its legacy.
"The nightmare is over," said Asim Qasim, the current principal. "I think now we can look back on these students as an ideal."
"We have to remember what happened in our school and in every school where students were executed," said Mohammed Thamer, a 17-year-old entering his final year. "This should be in our new history books."
None of the executed students' families received a body for burial. Only now are they able to express their grief, and they are demanding answers and justice.
"What happened at that school?" said Saadiya Hassan Ahmed Tuaima, 57, whose 17-year-old son, Nadhim Kasim Mohammed, was arrested in October 1981 and hanged in 1983. "They were just boys. Good boys."
"What did you do, my son, that they took you?" she said, weeping as she looked at her son's photograph. "Where is your tomb?"
The first graffiti, which appeared in the 1979-80 school year, was simply "Down with Saddam" scrawled in block letters on the blackboard of the high school's Section D, which had students who specialized in the sciences, according to Aladin Ahmed Morad, an Arabic teacher at the school in 1981 and now retired.
The 1979 revolution in neighboring Iran had electrified many among Iraq's Shiite majority, which had long been dominated by the Sunni minority. "The students were fascinated by the revolution in Iran," Morad said. "And they had a naïve belief that the government could be changed."
Founded in 1934, Kadhimiya High School was one of the city's most prestigious educational institutions. Among its graduates are the new education minister, Alaa Aldin Abdul Saheb Alwan, and a former interior minister under Hussein, Mahmoud Diab Ahmed, now in U.S. custody. The school, built around a courtyard, serves a bustling commercial district near a celebrated Shiite shrine honoring two 9th-century holy men, Musa Kadhim and his grandson, Muhammad Jawad. There was little loyalty to Hussein in the neighborhood, but its schools, like every other educational institution in Iraq, were tightly controlled by the government.
"Saddam realized the power of education, and he wanted to control it absolutely," said Sherzad Talabani, a Kurdish adviser to the new Education Ministry in Baghdad. "He wanted to mold every child from infancy."
Propaganda infiltrated nearly all subjects. Reading comprehension assignments in high school English textbooks included articles on the use of oil as a weapon against Anglo American imperialism; third-graders learned poems that lauded Hussein and recited lines such as "when he passes near, the roses celebrate."
The Education Ministry withdrew Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" from the English curriculum for one year and replaced it with a biography of Hussein, school officials said.
Students were encouraged to attend military camps during summer vacation and join Baath Party militias. Informers were recruited in all high school classes. Loyalty to the party would automatically improve a student's grades.
Dissent in such an environment was extraordinarily risky.
Jamal Latif Ridha remembers that his brother, Sattar, one of those executed, listened to Radio Iran and attended student discussion groups at both the school's prayer room and in a local mosque.
"Sattar was very enthusiastic about politics," Jamal Ridha said. "He spoke openly about confronting the regime."
Gradually, the graffiti became more ambitious. The writers, who remained anonymous, filled the blackboard before school started in the morning with polemics praising the Iranian revolution and extolling leading Shiite clerics, particularly Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr Sadr, whose writings were a touchstone for the young men. Sadr had been killed by the government in 1980.
Sympathetic teachers, including Morad, warned their classes that such activities were dangerous. And the principal, Sabar Obaid Athari, issued a general threat to the student body, telling the students he would report what was happening to the country's feared security services if the graffiti continued.
Quietly, Morad said, Athari, a committed Baathist, told his staff to give him the names of any students they suspected of involvement. And he also "encouraged students to spy on each other with promises of good grades for information," Morad said.
The graffiti stopped for some months before flaring up again in a new school year.
In leaflets left anonymously on students' desks, national songs, particularly those praising Hussein, were parodied. Hussein was labeled a British spy and, on one occasion, compared with Don Corleone, the head of a Mafia family portrayed by Marlon Brando in the movie "The Godfather," according to Thamer Fakri Qadhi, a former student at the school.
More than two decades later, it is unclear who among the executed students knew about or participated in the graffiti campaign and who was simply swept up in the wave of arrests. The authorities targeted anyone they knew to be an overtly religious Shiite or whom they suspected of disloyalty, according to families of the victims. Nadhim Mohammed's father, Kasim Mohammed, said he doubted his son was involved in the graffiti but noted that his son had repeatedly refused to join a Baath Party militia.
In 1981, a new principal, Hassan Munshid, called in the security services largely at the insistence of the head of the students' union, a government loyalist, according to former teachers and students at the school.
"The principal didn't say they were security, but we knew they were," Morad said. "We spotted them looking through the files of students."
The arrests began in early September and continued into October as students were picked up at home or on the street. Most had been under surveillance for some time, according to Ali Sabri Madhi, whose brother, Abdul Kareem, was arrested outside his father's car parts store on Oct. 15.
Abdul Ameer Abdul Hussein, 18, was among the first to be picked up. At dawn on Sept. 4, five security agents arrived at the house of his father, Abdul Hussein Abdul Ameer, and his mother, Najiya. The agents demanded their son, who had just graduated and was waiting to start college, his father recalled.
For reasons the family has never understood, the police also arrested Abdul Ameer's 15-year-old brother, Haidar, a student at a vocational school. Both young men were executed in 1983, according to death certificates obtained by their family after the fall of Baghdad.
"They were religious boys but moderate, very calm, very polite," said their father, who keeps two passport-sized photographs of his sons as well as their death certificates in his pocket. "We were hoping they were still alive. Every time there was a general amnesty, we waited here for them to come home."
Saad Abdulwahab Kasim, 40, is one of the two Kadhimiya students who were arrested in 1981 and later released. The second student could not be located.
Kasim, a high school volleyball star who later played for the national team, was not in Section D, but he was identified by another student, Yousif Jawad, he said.
"I saw Yousif before he was taken away," said Kasim, now a street peddler in Kadhimiya. "He looked at me and told the guard he wanted to change his testimony."
Yousif then told his interrogators that Kasim was not in Section D, and he had named him only because of the torture, Kasim recalled. "The interrogators knew I wasn't in Section D, but, in the end, it was Yousif who saved me."
Kasim said he remembers about 35 students being held in a large hall and in an adjacent passageway at the headquarters of the Baghdad security forces. Abdul Ridha Hassan Halabi, 64, who was being held at the center at the same time on an unrelated charge, said he also remembers seeing about 30 to 35 students in the hall. He recognized Nadhim Mohammed, Abdul Ameer Abdul Hussein, and Ali Fouad Abdul Ridha from the neighborhood and was a friend of Ali Ridha's father, he said.
The students, including Kasim, were taken to interrogation rooms where they were hung suspended in the air, their hands tied behind their backs, and beaten with sticks and cable wire. They were also subjected to electric shock, according to both Kasim and Halabi.
"I was in a cell, but we could see into the passageway," Halabi said. "I saw them carry Ali out of the room in a blanket and dump him in the corridor. He didn't move for hours. He just lay there before they put him in a cell."
Nadhim Mohammed was placed in Halabi's cell after his last interrogation; he told his cellmates that he had confessed to being a member of the banned Dawa party but that everything would be all right because he had also signed a pledge of allegiance to Hussein and his government. "I said, 'Nadhim, oh Nadhim, this is still a confession,' " Halabi said.
The families of the students continued to be harassed for years. In 1991, just before the Persian Gulf War, security agents again stormed through the home of Abdul Hussein Abdul Ameer, who had already lost two sons. His 11-year-old daughter, Inas, who had a heart condition, collapsed and died in the living room as the house was torn apart, her father said.
The families never discussed what happened with neighbors, sometimes not even among themselves. This April, Mohammed Ridha was finally able to show his 9-year-old nephew, Sajad, pictures of his Uncle Ali that had been hidden away in the family home for 22 years. "Before the war I was too afraid he might talk to others about his executed uncle," said Ridha, recalling the student as tender, almost elegant, because of his love of language. "That would be a disaster for the family."
The students were executed by hanging in 1982 and 1983 after a hearing at the Revolutionary Court, where they were found guilty of membership in the Dawa party, a capital offense, according to security service records.
Sattar Ridha was hanged on Jan. 30, 1982; Abdul Kareem Madhi on July 28, 1983; and Ali Ridha on Aug. 6, 1983, according to death certificates obtained by their families.
Madhi's family recently made a memorial flag for Abdul Kareem, which reads: "Martyred in the execution cells of Saddam Hussein and buried in the dictator's acid."
His 68-year-old mother, Zeinab Naji, unfurled it in her kitchen for a visitor.
"My son," she cried, falling to her knees as she held it up. "My son."