RAMADI PRISON CAMP, Iraq — "I am a prisoner of war," says the message scribbled on a classroom desk at this camp for more than 1,000 captured Iranian soldiers.
Scrawled below is a single additional word, which perhaps most accurately reflects the mood among the inmates--"bored."
The Red Cross estimates that Iraq holds 10,000 Iranian prisoners--and Iran five times as many Iraqi POWs--from their five-year border war.
Iraqi authorities refuse to give any figures or say how many POW camps like Ramadi exist.
Visitors entering this camp, accompanied by Iraqi guards and officials, are routinely surrounded by young Iranian prisoners eager to denounce Iran's revolutionary leader the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"I am not a prisoner here. The Iranian people are the real prisoners," says a 33-year-old man from the city of Kermanshah.
"Please, sir, please, I want to tell you how much we thank (Iraqi) President Saddam Hussein for helping us," persists a 16-year-old named Mohammed.
Because of strict conditions, it is impossible for visitors to judge the sincerity of prisoners' statements.
Despite the presence of tanks and thick layers of barbed wire surrounding the Ramadi camp, an Iraqi information official insists, "They are not prisoners here."
Most of the inmates are between the ages of 14 and 20, according to Maj. Ali Mustapha, the camp commander.
He says most of them were captured either at the beginning of the war in late 1980 or during a big battle in 1983 in southeastern Iraq.
Regarded by Western diplomats as a model POW camp, Ramadi sends prisoners to daily classes in Arabic, English and French and also offers art and typing lessons.
Asked if prisoners ever complained, Mustapha replies, "No, thank God. All the prisoners are at rest because we provide them with all they need--food, living accommodation, recreation. We even give them radios to listen to."
He acknowledges that the prisoners, especially the teen-agers, suffer psychologically because of the captivity.
"They miss their parents," says Mustapha. "They aren't like men. They aren't conditioned to this sort of life. We just try to ease this loneliness as much as possible."
Mohammed, who was captured at the age of 14 after volunteering to help evacuate wounded soldiers from the front, admits he is missing out on normal teen-age activities.
"We are growing up here," he says, motioning towards the barbed wire. "These years are supposed to be our growing years. We should be in Iran right now, going to school."
Maj. Mustapha says some POWs still support Khomeini. "Everybody can think what he wants," he adds. "This is up to them and it is not our job to tell them what to think."
A paramedic and English translator for other prisoners says he hopes to return to Iran when the war ends. He offers neither praise nor criticism of either side.
"Like everybody, I am saddened when I watch the Iraqi films on television when they bomb Iran."