BAGHDAD - Come to Sadr City and follow the children, the one hauling flour on his donkey, the one collecting garbage on his tractor, the two brothers with bowl haircuts and greasy hands hoisting mufflers and car batteries in the late morning heat.
A lot of kids here can't tell you what 6 x 3 is. They can't read. They have no time to play. They work from dawn until after the moon is high. They are children in size only.
The new school year began recently, but not for Karrar Raad, 12, and his 10-year-old brother, Allawi. They work for car mechanics in adjacent garages that are smaller than a rich lady's closet. Their father is ill and has no job, and the boys have to support eight children and two adults. They earn $2.70 a day, plus tips.
"I'm making a living for my family," said Karrar, a willowy kid with nervous eyes and oil-stained trousers. "I'd like to go to school. I've never been in one. Not a single day. My friends tell me school is very beautiful."
Ali Rashed owns the muffler shop. A big man with nicked hands and seven grown children of his own, he spotted Karrar and Allawi collecting tin cans in the street months ago and offered them jobs. He said boys shouldn't live off tin cans, and, besides, the streets are too dangerous to be picking things up. Cans can be booby-trapped with gunpowder and fuses.
"There are too many poor families and too many children working in Sadr City," Rashed said. "It's better for these boys here than in the streets where they face bombs and explosives. I don't think they will have a good future. They are not educated and their family can't help them. They sometimes don't have anything to eat. How can you have a future if you have nothing to eat?"
What does a boy think when he listens to this? To hear that there is nothing better than what he sees right now: blackened walls, mufflers dangling overhead, a hacksaw on a hook, a poster of the Imam Ali the only color in the dimness.
The Raad brothers, and tens of thousands of children like them in this poor walled-in Shiite Muslim district, have been shaped by war, honed by poverty. They are witnesses to sectarian violence, Shiite militias, angry sermons echoing through mosques, Humvees gurgling through streets and pictures of religious leaders and wanted men hovering on billboards. These children may not know grammar and punctuation, but they know what to do when the bullets come, how to take cover, to hide from the kidnappers, the militants and the soldiers.
Bloodshed and years of unrest are harsh teachers, especially in Sadr City, where 30% of children have quit school, according to a Baghdad human resources office. That estimate is probably low. A United Nations report found that 94% of boys in Iraq attend elementary school, but that drops to 44% by high school. For girls, 81% start elementary school; 31% go on to high school.
In another world, boys like the Raad brothers might dream of being engineers, doctors or hip-hop pretenders. But here the uniform and the gun command respect, the soldier wearing dark sunglasses, a .50-caliber machine gun tight in his hands. The soldier and the policeman offer protection; no classroom or Encarta program can guarantee that, not in this neighborhood, a riot of clatter, of dusty houses and tin roofs, spreading like a gray sea from the tailor's shop to the corners where the sheep cry before slaughter.
There is no classroom in Ali Kadhim Baidani's long day. His father is bent and old, and Ali, 15, collects garbage on his tractor to help provide for his family of nine. In 2001, his clan moved to Sadr City from the marshes southeast of Amarah. The tractor was meant to farm the fields rimming Baghdad, but at 5 a.m. each day Ali drives it from the furrows to pick up trash in streets and alleys, heading toward the dump about 2 p.m.
When he returns home, his younger brothers circle to hear stories from the city. They help him wash his hands, brush the dust from his clothes. The eldest son, Ali has never been to school; his childhood is like his tractor -- turned over to other responsibilities. He attends funerals and weddings in place of his father, the family representative to neighbors and the world.
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"The happiest moment for me," he said, "is when I receive money from the [garbage] contractor and give it to my father to spend on my family. . . . I will work in this job and when the job is finished, I will search for another."
Ali's tractor route crosses the same streets as a donkey cart driven by 12-year-old Sajjad Hassan Saadi. He quit school in the 4th grade to sell government-rationed flour at the Jamilia market. It's illegal, but, like many things here, it is an unnoticed, accepted misdemeanor of survival. He can earn $8 to $12 a day, but on a recent afternoon, he had no money in his pockets.
"When I see kids, especially those I know, I feel sad," he said. "They will work as teachers and officers, but what kind of job is there after this?"
A few blocks over, past buildings scarred by mortar shells and bullets, past knots of traffic and busy markets, past the hidden weapons of anti-U.S. Shiite militias, the Raad brothers were busy amid batteries and mufflers, a battered set of tools, a blow torch, a bald tire as smooth as marble.
The corner burst with the static of radios. Policemen, sweating in white shirts, and soldiers wearing gray, urban camouflage, their guns black and shiny, stood guard. A lot could happen between the mechanic's shop and the corner, but security was there, vigilant against blast walls and barbed wire. It is the reason neighborhood streets have grown much safer.
"Once when I was working," said Karrar, "an American helicopter fired from overhead at some gunmen. I rushed and closed the shop and ran home. Sometimes, there's firefights here. You listen to the bullets. I used to be scared of the shooting, but I can tell now if the shooting is near the market or somewhere else."
Karrar pulls a dream from the grease.
"I would love to join the National Guard," he said. "When I see them, I love them. They are brave and I love how they stand with their guns."
Children passed beyond the garage; a few had book bags and new clothes, or at least well-scrubbed old clothes.
Karrar's father, Abdul Bidan, who has stopped in to say hi to his sons, whispered, "He gets jealous when he sees kids with book bags."