A day before I arrived in Iraq, the Lebanese Prime Minster had resigned following weeks of protests. While people in Lebanon were celebrating in the streets, Iraqi security forces continued to kill people in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. Over the past month more than 250 of the largely peaceful protesters have died. Here is one of the few English articles about the protest.
During my stay in Iraq, I spoke mainly with young people about their expectations for the ongoing demonstrations. Some had already participated in the protests and some were willing to join the protests in the next days. Despite the high blood loss, young people are enthusiastic, optimistic and ready to continue the protests. What is new: They are connected through the Internet and they oppose regional and sectarian divisions.
Different from previous occasions, protesters do not just call for improved public services and better job opportunities. They call for a fundamental reform of the political system and culture. They demand an end of corruption. And they want those responsible for the killing of protesters to be taken to justice.
I myself was not able to witness the Baghdad protests with my own eyes. Due to saftey reasons, we were not allowed to leave the airport. However, later in Northern Iraq, I met NGO activists who are passionate humanitarian and medics. They were in Baghdad until Tuesday and sent us the following report and pictures from the protests which I think are worth sharing – also because there are far too little non-Arabic accounts of the situation in the streets of Baghdad:
(Note: In an initial version of this report, we had mentioned their names and included one picture of them in action. After they were threatened upon their return, we decided to take out this mention and picture)
A Night on the Streets of Baghdad
It is mostly young people here. Young men and women, the future of Iraq, out in the streets tonight, and every night for a full month now. Manning the barricades on the bridges and along the river. Treating the wounded in makeshift clinics assembled behind slabs of concrete providing a measure of protection. At the river, which they call the frontline, the clinics are dug-out holes in the sand, where medical students crouch over the wounded, with cellphones as their only source of light, washing the arms and legs of those hit by teargas.
There is none here from the outside world to bear witness, said the young people, as they light candles for those who didn’t make it. Every day, every night, people are dying, some in the streets, others in the hospitals.
In the shadowy length of the frontline, young men take turns sitting all along the banks of the river, awaiting the next attacks, the Iraqi flag clutched in their hands or draped on their backs. Others sit higher up the river bank, pointing green laser lights to the security forces up on the bridge, who shoot teargas canisters from their vantage point straight down at unarmed civilians, at their heads and bodies. The protesters with the green laser light try to lure the attack towards them to divert it away from women and children who were stationed at the foot of the bridge. Someone came to hurry us away from the river, as the security forces were changing shift and the new arrivals will most likely attack with renewed vigor. Everyone advised us to keep looking up at the bridge while walking to quickly spot teargas canisters raining down. One did land just behind us but did not go off.
In a tent clinic, a young physician’s assistant (PA) talks to me. Last night was particularly bad, he said, his voice shaky with rage and despair. Four in a row were brought to his tent and each one had passed away. Earlier at midnight when we first arrived at his tent, he was treating a teenage boy, probably no more than 16, rubbing the face and irrigating the eyes with saline. The boy was in extreme respiratory distress, gasping, salivating, lips and tongue desperately seeking air like a fish out of water. He refused oxygen, which could indicate burns in his respiratory tract. A more potent form of teargas has been used on this boy, consistent with recent reports by Amnesty International accusing Iraq of “abusively using Balkan and Serbian teargas grenades which were manufactured for war.” Because of its extra density and toxicity, the effect on many young protesters is devastating, resulting in extreme respiratory distress.
The boy starts having spasms. He really must go to the hospital now. But there is a shortage of ambulances. The boy has to wait. The PA keeps washing his face and eyes with normal saline until an ambulance finally stops outside and the volunteers carry him out.
One forgets to pray on a night like this. But at this very moment I prayed really hard that this boy made it alive to the hospital and that they had the treatment for him.
A group of protesters gathered around my phone for their voices to be recorded. Everyone was excited to have a foreigner visit them. It seems that the attack on us is less tonight, said a young man who was serving as our guide, because guys are here. The others concurred. There are spies everywhere and news if your visit have surely reached the forces on the bridge.
They all wanted to tell their stories of the past 4 weeks, to show their wounds, theirs bandage legs, their broken hands, and bullet wounds. Tell the world what is happening here. They are shooting straight at us. We are unarmed. So many young ones have died.
Those who survived the attacks by security forces get patched up and return to the frontline by the river. At a roadside clinic, a patient sat on a mattress with what seemed like a broken rib. A pharmacist and a dental student were treating him. Doctor, he said in a muffled voice, treat me quickly so I can go back. We advised him to stay put until he is well and regains his strength. Truth is though, he should go to the hospital and get his rib mended.
I hope this will stop soon, the PA said in a low voice as he looked out onto the square. Too many are dying. I hope it stops.
We will not stop, declared the protesters who wanted to speak into my microphone. We want a new country. A new government. No more political parties. No more repression. One boy demanded justice for his father, a soldier, who was executed by ISIS, and whose family never received the compensation they were promised. A student demanded that the international community come down to Baghdad and help find a solution. We want freedom, said another student. We want human rights, said another, and everyone repeated him. We want human rights.
It is now 3.30 in the morning. Sirens keep on wailing all through the night as ambulances rush casualties to the hospitals. There is talk that something really bad will happen at 5am. Most likely an attack on the civilians more vicious than ever before. The medical volunteers brace themselves for the arrival of more casualties.