I was born and raised in Iraq in the Nineties, during sanctions that managed to destroy almost every human being in the country.
Strangely, I remember how I wanted to drink more Pepsi Cola, maybe because a common commodity like that was such a luxury at the time. That along with more important items, such basic medical supplies, and water treatment equipment, the absence of which killed more than a million people during a decade.
I grew up in Baghdad, in a peaceful neighborhood in the western outskirts of the city, where Muslims and Christians were neighbors and friends, and no one asked whether you were Sunni or Shia.
During hot summer nights, we slept on the rooftop. The view was unforgettable, a scene decorated by architecturally stunning houses, palm trees and an expressway that went all the way to the borders with Jordan and Syria. I used to sit and watch cars pass by and listen to my father’s stories about his childhood in Iraq.
The next day, my brother, cousins, friends and I would play football in our garden, barefoot, with a cheap ball made of plastic, and with my grandfather on his wheelchair as the referee. He died in 1998.
Years later, days before the American invasion of 2003, we would leave our home to stay with relatives who lived away from the center of Baghdad. My parents thought it would be safer there. They were absolutely right. While we were away, American Apache helicopters riddled our roof with bullet holes.
As invading troops unleashed chaos throughout the country, my father was kidnapped. Thugs waited outside the school where he taught, and as he came out, they beat him until he was unconscious, put him in his car and drove away. Fortunately, they released him hours later, with promises to kill him if he ever goes to work in that neighborhood again.
Sectarian violence was sweeping the country, and just as we were trying to move on and forget the trauma from my father’s incident, my mother found an envelope, on an early Baghdad morning, with the words “three days to leave,” scribbled on the outside, and a bullet on the inside. The message was clear. We had to leave.
Baghdad – Kiev – Baghdad
In 2010, I finally left Iraq for Ukraine, to go to medical school in the beautiful city of Ternopil in the western part of the country. It was a small town, with kind people and a new culture to learn about, perfect apart from the cold weather and the absence of Iraqi Food. I missed Thireed Loobieh.
Despite my home sickness, I never returned to Baghdad for a visit, not even during the holidays. I spent my first month in Ukraine rarely getting in touch with anyone back home. But eventually, it was actual illness that broke my resolve to be away from my family. I couldn’t do it anymore. All it took was a rough bout of the flu to bring my voyage to an end. I didn’t last away from Iraq longer than a few months, and I let all my plans slip away. I had to return to Baghdad.
When I returned home to Iraq from Ukraine, in 2011, I felt like a stranger in my own city. All of my close friends had left, to escape violence and find a better life. My cousin Laith was in between Amman and Damascus, Muhammad fled Iraq for Romania after being held at gunpoint by men that broke into his home, and Abdulrahman escaped to the UAE immediately after his kidnapped brother was released.
But as the days passed, my coping abilities would get stronger. No matter how difficult living conditions got around me, I was able to find refuge in a good song, an istikan of hot sweet Iraqi chai, or a book. Like all other Iraqis, I had to keep on living. But that’s all we were doing, was living day to day, with very little to look forward to.
I went back to continuing my studies. My commute to college could take up to two hours, depending on the mood of military officers at checkpoints. If they were happy on that day, people would pass by easily, and if they weren`t, people would wait. The checkpoints seemed to have very little to do with security, and more with the government flexing their muscles, pretending to be doing something.
I’ve never heard of a so-called “terrorist” being captured at a checkpoint, not even once. In fact, militiamen armed with AK-47 rifles, freely roamed Baghdad and no one dared to say a word. A state of affairs reflective of the failure of security forces, and the fiasco of the government in general, which for thirteen years, had failed to provide the simplest necessities for the people of Iraq.
My days in Baghdad were dotted by bombings, chronic electricity shortages, an inefficient educational system, and even an outbreak of Cholera. Our problems seemed to be endless.
The Road to Tahrir
On one of these days, my cousins and I decided to do what many people these days think is a strange activity: walking through the streets of Baghdad. Residents try to avoid the central parts of the city in general, whether on foot or in a car. Traffic jams and the chance of a car bombing make the city difficult to navigate, to say the least. But, the tempting charm of the old neighborhoods is always so irresistible. And so I made my way to Al Saadoun Street, one of the city’s major avenues, to meet up and embark on a tour of our own city.
Al Saadoun street has always been known for its movie theaters, hotels and vibrant commercial activity. Since 2003, however, most of the cinemas, like the iconic Al Nasr Theater, have permanently closed their doors. Even the street was slowly losing its identity.
It was a hot summer day, and the sun was relentless. So we decided to take a car part of the way, until we reached the older neighborhoods of Baghdad, where we would continue on foot. In an old Russian Volga, we travelled through Al Rasheed street until we reached Al Mutannabi street, home to the city’s famous book market, an area still populated by old Baghdadi homes, nestled in between overflowing coffee shops where intellectuals and poets would gather to serenade the city with their thoughts.
But the decrepit state of the buildings and the streets of this historical area of the city really captured the state of affairs we were living in. It resembled our destruction. Not only was the government taking jobs away from us and giving them to their relatives, and not only were they stealing our money, they were also destroying the very essence of our identity.
The way my cousin Hussein was speaking about his childhood memory of these buildings, the way his eyes glittered beneath the dusty air, really resonated with me. It brought about an uneasy feeling, that everything was falling apart, both figuratively and literally at the same time. It was a perfect buildup to what would happen a few days later, in the heart of Baghdad, at Tahrir Square.
Thursday, August 6th – The night before
Mahmood and I sat outside his home to talk about the protests in Tahrir Square. A week earlier, my cousins had responded to a call to gather in the city center to protest unbearable living conditions brought on by searing temperatures coupled with the absence of any electricity to keep our homes cool. Along with thousands of other young Iraqis, they gathered to demand the resignation of the government, and the end of corruption.
I’ve known Mahmood for a few years now. We had met in Damascus, as we both were trying to forge a life for us away from everything that we had ever known. We decided to join the protestors in Tahrir the next day, and we were talking about our fears that militias would take over the demonstrations, and that the messaging would be stifled with fear and sectarianism. They’re extremist thugs that justify their violence with patriotic rhetoric. We hated them, and everything they stood for.
Friday, August 7th – The day of the second demonstration
5PM – FACEBOOK CHAT
Me: Where are you Mahmood?
Mahmood: Just about to leave home and head to Tahrir.
Me: Gawad, why didn’t you tell me?
About an hour later, we met again at Al Saadoun Street. Laith, my cousin, was back. Samer, another friend we met in Damascus, also joined us. Even Mustafa, Laith`s neighbor and my colleague in Ukraine, was there. At one point in our lives, we all left Baghdad, but now we were back. And as the day took shape, our return to Iraq might be glorious after all.
We stood on the sidewalk and watched hundreds of men, women and children walk towards Tahrir Square, carrying signs, carrying the Iraqi flag, but most importantly carrying their dreams. They dared to dream, and we dared to join them.
As we made our way to the square, the atmosphere we witnessed was nothing we had experienced before. Thousands chanted one name, and waved one flag. The power of a unified country was before our eyes for all to see. Protestors chanted against division, sectarianism and corruption.
I remember, shortly after we arrived, four young men, visibly dressed as clerics walked through the crowd. Mahmood turned to them and started chanting, “In the name of religion, the thieves have robbed us!” And soon the crowd joined in. It was a spectacular scene, where Mahmood stood out like a maestro leading a masterful orchestra. It was such a tremendous relief to hear the crowds chanting in one loud voice what we have felt for years, but were too afraid to say. The feeling was indescribable.
The anger of the crowd was mostly directed at Nouri Al Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister. Under his rule, a third of Iraq fell to ISIS, and the sectarian divide was driven even further into our communities. He was a perfect extension of the destruction that begot us by the Yanks in 2003. To him, we chanted: “Oh Mailiki you trash, leader of all the pickpockets.”
The more I heard the crowd chant it, the more I felt my fears dissolve, and I could see the same effect on the hundreds that gathered in the square.
In the weeks after…
Responding to this massive outpouring of anger on the streets of Iraq, a seven point reform plan was announced by the current Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. It felt like a tremendous vindication. It felt like a victory. We began dreaming of a corruption-free Iraq, where we could see a better future for us and our families. But that hope slowly dissipated.
As usual, political rhetoric proved nothing more than empty promises. We should have known better. It is naïve to think that someone like Abadi, who was involved in the destruction of the country himself, could be part of any reform.
And just like that, I write this piece with my desperation bringing me back to where this story started. We, Iraqi youth, have two choices. We either cross the Tigris River into the Green Zone and bring down the government with our own two hands, or we cross the Aegean Sea to Greece and beyond for a better life.