The Guardian: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad finds there is evidence that the killing is still going on
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, THE GUARDIAN: I waited several months before I returned to Baghdad. So much has changed since my last visit. There is a sense of tentative joy. Watched over by the statue of the famous Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi, old men sing songs just like they used to, but their eyes look sad. I take a stroll down Mutanabbi Street, home to Baghdad’s famous book market. This place has always been the cultural heart of the city. We Iraqis love our books. The cafés and tea houses lining the street were always a hangout for journalists, poets, and artists. I used to come here during the days of Saddam when I was a university student. It was here that I’ve bought my illegal photocopy of The Communist Manifesto and Orwell’s 1984. Nowadays they sell endless biographies of Saddam next to books by Paul Bremer, America’s former man in Baghdad. A year ago, Mutanabbi Street looked like this. The street was targeted by a car bomb, killing dozens of people. Our prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, vowed that he would rebuild the street. And so now here it is, rebuilt. It’s bustling again. It’s the stereotype that everyone’s using here. The question is: is this only a cosmetic surgery in the city, as they only kind of refurbish the walls, the bricks, the windows, pave the road, and the sewage? Is it a genuine improvement in the situation? Have the people forgot their fears? Is it the end of the civil war? I was on my way to a favorite café of mine. It was time for some tea and chat. When Mutanabbi was bombed last year, the café was left in a desperate state. Now the café’s all gleaming, bright, and new again. I almost feel like a tourist here. Then I get chatting to Osama.
ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Tea?
OSAMA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Yes, tea.
ABDUL-AHAD: Two teas, please.
OSAMA: Baghdad is like a woman who has rediscovered her makeup. She is becoming beautiful again. Mutanabbi Street it’s lovely once more. Nightclubs are opening. The same thing is happening along the river. Baghdad the city of literature is rising up again. Baghdad is like a wanton woman. Baghdad is a drunken woman again. It’s lovely! Over the past years, Baghdad became so gray. The city lost its color. Now the color is coming back. “Lady Baghdad” is putting on her makeup. Sure, she still needs a hairdryer and a few other things, but she’ll definitely look beautiful again.
ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): I love Osama’s optimism and his portrait of Baghdad as a wayward secular place. But there’s also something naive about his optimism. Ten thousand civilians died in Iraq in 2008 during this year of peace and security. The city is still divided. The people who left their neighborhoods to go live in other neighborhoods are still living there. Baghdad is demarcated between Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. Yes, people do travel between these neighborhoods, but when they choose to live, they will live only in their own sectarian neighborhoods. I still get the feeling that this is not the end of the war, this is just a big truce that’s taking place between the warring factions. The walls are still everywhere. It seems more confusing than ever, even to a Baghdadi like me. I drove through this street two days ago with a very good friend of mine, and for 10 minutes we were so confused—we didn’t know where we are, though we know this area very well. The whole geography of the city has changed between all these walls. This is northeastern Baghdad. I’ve come back to the neighborhoods we visited last year, Shia Qahira and Kadhimiya and Sunni Adhamiyah. We are back in a market where the Sunni militia men have their checkpoints. But the men I photographed before have disappeared. Some of them are dead. The new ones won’t let us film them, for reasons of security. We film a memorial poster to their leader, Abu Omer, who was murdered last August. “You were the spearhead who led the eagles of Adhamiyah” says the inscription in the typical flowery language. “Your death is one more catastrophe to add to all the others.” Abu Omer’s brother, Tabarak, agrees to take me to his resting place—with an armed guard in tow. And so we return to Adhamiyah’s makeshift cemetery, the one that used to be a children’s playground before the walls went up. The gravediggers are less busy now, but this place will forever be a monument to the worst days of Iraq’s civil war. And on a Thursday afternoon in 2009, the tears and the prayers still flow here. Tabarak tells me the story of how Abu Omer died in August.
TABARAK (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): He was killed by a man dressed as a woman. He was wearing a black abaya. I’m sorry to mention it, but … he was even wearing women’s stockings. Abu Omer was only three meters away from him when the bomber came running at him. He came running, running. One of the guards tried to stop the bomber, when he exploded. When he was three meters away from Abu Omer, he exploded. It was such an explosion that people were terrified, and the sound was very loud. The suicide bomber killed Abu Omer and many people around him.
ABDUL-AHAD: And then I meet this devastated mother. She tells me that the hatred’s still there, that’s the killing hasn’t stopped.
ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): But it’s claimed that the killing has stopped.
MOTHER: No, no, no! In Qahira there is no improvement. Everything is done in secret now. They organize proxy killings now. The situation in Qahira seems okay, but the militias contact other groups in Sadr City. They come and do the killing on their behalf. It was the people in Qahira who ordered my son’s murder. The bullets were all over his body, everywhere. Even the pathologists were shocked. Bullet holes all over his body. What did he do to deserve it?
ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): With everyone talking about improvement in security, and everything is getting better and well, a year later to see graves [inaudible], to see families still grieving, still crying for their mourned sons, still here, the division is here. This is why Baghdad is divided: because the revenge, the blood of the people here.
TABARAK: When we came last year, this place was deserted.
ABDUL-AHAD: Tabarak takes me to see the wall again for the last time. I think about the past six years, what has been achieved—the toppling of a dictator, several hundred thousand Iraqis killed, trillions of dollars wasted, and nearly 5,000 dead coalition soldiers—all for this, so that the good people of Baghdad now live inside these concrete cages, talking wistfully of peace.
ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Do you think you will ever see the day when these walls come down?
TABARAK: Nothing lasts forever. Even the suffering we have lived through is over now. So for the wall to come down is easy. Thank God the killing and sectarianism are over now. So the walls will come down.
ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Maybe he’s right; maybe the walls will come down soon. But I have the feeling it will take years. The wall is still there; the bridge is still there; the checkpoints are still there. Inside this Sunni neighborhood you have life. You have a wall and a highway, and then a Shiite neighborhood. And inside the Shia neighborhood, life is back again. But the communication between the two neighborhoods is not there again, because there is still mistrust and there is still the fear. The wall is not the only barrier separating this neighborhood from the next neighborhood. It’s the fear inside the people here. And the footbridge of my schoolboy memories? There is good news and bad news. The good news? People can cross it these days. The bad? They meet an armed guard when they get to the other side. The Baghdad of my childhood has disappeared. The city of walls is still standing.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOR GUARDIAN FILMS
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS FOR AL JAZEERA ENGLISH
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