Baghdad: A Lonely Walk to a Crime Scene | Middle East News

It was quiet in the gardens on Abu Nawas Street on a recent winter evening. I was taking a walk in downtown Baghdad and decided to take a stroll down the once elegant boulevard that runs along the Tigris River.

Clouds of smoke emanating from burnt rubbish near the water’s edge, stray dogs barked among lonely men drinking alcohol hidden in plastic bags. A drunkard squeezed his penis and quietly sprinkled his urine into a puddle of water.

On the main road, the solemn faces of living “martyrs” and militiamen on numerous street posters seemed to cast threatening glances at traumatized civilians stuck in traffic.

Militia flags fluttered in the wind on broken lampposts. Some of them had “The League of the Righteous” stamped in green on a white background. It was as if Abu Nawas Street kept pace.

Several days earlier, armed men in camouflage uniform had appeared on television, claiming to belong to the “League of the Righteous” and threatening the Iraqi Prime Minister himself with having arrested one of their comrades who allegedly planned an attack. rocket on the occupied “green zone” in Baghdad. .

A militiaman from another group said in a statement his intention to cut off the prime minister’s ears. As a result, the hashtag “al-Kadhimi’s ears” had been in fashion for days on social media.

These bold threats have met with pompous tirades about state sovereignty and prestige from politicians who are relentlessly committed to upholding the rule of law in a lawless country.

For almost two decades now, they have failed miserably. Armed men continue to threaten, kidnap and murder civilians at will. They still clumsily fire rockets at the American Embassy which, instead of hitting it, kill innocent Iraqis.

According to Iraq Body Count, an organization that records violent deaths in Iraq, 902 civilians were killed in 2020. Many of those victims died in the protests that became the October uprising for demanding a life of dignity in a safe homeland. .

Meanwhile, hunger continued to spread across Iraq at an incalculable rate. Over the summer, the UN said it expected “poverty rates to reach around 40 percent.” This was before the devaluation of the dinar, which further aggravated the suffering of Iraqis.

The prevailing poverty was evident in Abu Nawas.

Children wearing mismatched flip flops and torn tracksuits were selling juice and water near the Shahryar and Sheherazade statues of Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. Exhausted vendors sat on the sidewalk, hoping a driver would wave them over and buy what they sell on the cheap.

A woman buys fish in al-Wathba Square in Baghdad, Iraq, December 6, 2020 [Nabil Salih/Al Jazeera]

But poverty was not the only tangible presence on the streets. While the Iraqi government is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens, it nevertheless insists on securing their public spaces.

As I walked down Abu Nawas that evening, I felt like I was visiting barracks. Parts of the sidewalks were surrounded by accordion wire or occupied by military vehicles. Within an hour, I was arrested three times by members of the security forces for having a camera hanging from my neck.

“Where are you going?” one of them said imposingly, before asking me to take a picture of him.

As I walked, I thought of the famous masgouf restaurants in Abu Nawas serving the best traditional grilled carp. As part of a street renovation campaign in 2012, the municipality demolished them for – among other things – having been “badly consumed”, that is to say serving alcohol.

Abu Nawas is still home to a few sordid liquor stores. When the sun goes down, these establishments are the only source of light in the long stretches of darkness along the street. So far, they have managed to escape threats from the untouchable militiamen.

I quickly walked down the main road into one of the street’s neglected gardens to capture the last kisses of the sun with the Tiger. An old man was sitting on a children’s swing, rocking back and forth and gulping down a beer. What was he thinking? Has he lost a brother or sister to anonymous assassins? Or have American liberation missiles wiped out his children?

With my camera in hand, I framed my photo, pressed the shutter button, and recited the words the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus wrote of his self-imposed exile:

Heavy with water

are the drowned man’s hair

Who came back to the party

After turning off the lights

Stacked chairs on the barren shore

and chained the waves of the Tiger

From Abu Nawas, I headed towards al-Rashid Street, passing under the al-Jumhouriya Bridge on the way. Jisr al-Jumhouriya is where security forces killed and injured so many unarmed youth during the 2019-20 protests.

Injured protester is assisted during clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters in Baghdad, Iraq, November 22, 2019 [AP/Hadi Mizban]

It was then that the Iraqis marched in droves to demand a “homeland”, but received live ammunition instead.

As I walked towards al-Rashid, I looked towards al-Tahrir Square. Its palm trees were wrapped in white and green neon lights. Was it for Christmas? Even the palm trees and Jawad Salim’s Freedom Monument were hit by tear gas canisters in 2019.

As I walked down al-Rashid Street, I remembered one of the victims of the crackdown – Saif Salman, 26, whom I met in 2019 while recovering in a Doctors Without hospital. Borders in Baghdad. I decided to call to check it out. He broke down in tears when we discussed the events of October 2019.

“I don’t regret it,” he said sobbing over the phone. “It was a moral duty that I had to fulfill”.

On October 25, 2019, he joined crowds of angry young people on the bridge determined to overthrow the regime. A military grade tear gas canister struck his right leg, lodging in the bone. His leg had to be amputated.

The current government is committed to accountability and punishing those who unleashed violence against peaceful protesters. But protesters continue to be killed, and like millions of Iraqis, Salman disbelieved those promises. “We are already dead for them,” he told me.

By the time I finished my phone call, al-Rashid was shrouded in darkness. No cinephile lined up in front of the famous al-Zawra cinema. Apart from a few soldiers, the once most elegant street in town was empty.

A few street lights were on, illuminating its ornate facades, faded after years of neglect. Carcasses of buildings, collapsing from the inside, barely leaned to the side on painful columns.

In its frequent forays into restoration work to polish the lost prestige of the ancient city, the municipality sends workers to paint these columns. The paint usually peels off a few days later.

As I walked into the dark, a young man appeared in a dark alley and I asked if he lived here. “It’s quiet here. Few families remained, ”he said.

He showed me a scar on his left arm. “It comes from a stun grenade,” he said. He showed me another with a bullet on his right leg. He too had joined the protests in 2019.

Pictures on his phone showed people swarming in the middle of the same street we were on. “They killed a guy here,” he pointed to a place behind us.

A man walks down an empty street in downtown Baghdad on December 6, 2020 [Nabil Salih/Al Jazeera]

“They say it was the Iranians. It’s a lie. It was the Iraqis who killed the demonstrators, ”he said, referring to the Iraqi security forces.

I said goodbye and continued my walk through downtown Baghdad. I walked past what was once the McKenzie Bookstore, now a shoe store: a transformation that exemplifies the steep dive the country plunged into the abyss after the 2003 US invasion.

I could see stray dogs rummaging through the garbage bags piled up on the sidewalks. They reminded me of the dogs gnawing at corpses lying in the streets of Baghdad at the height of America’s run for emancipation in 2003.

Eighteen years have passed, and yet Baghdad still feels like it is in the middle of a war. Military helicopters still roar over poor alleys where young people are doomed to a miserable existence, to go out looking for work to come home in a coffin, to have their portraits adorned in the living rooms where old women sit in silence. , drowned in unshakeable sorrow.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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