Cafe Ridha Alwan in central Baghdad's Karrada district was packed with customers, mostly intellectuals, when an explosion rang out May 2 followed by gun shots. Sirens of the ambulance and firefighter trucks were heard wailing in the streets near the blast area.
People rushed to leave the cafe for fear that another car would explode, as double-car bombings have been the signature attack of terrorist groups in Iraq who seem to be aiming at harming as many people as possible.
Ammar al-Shahbander and his colleague Emad al-Sharaa, who run the Iraqi Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), had left the coffee shop a few minutes before the bombing took place. Not long after, reports of Shahbander’s death circulated on social networking sites on the night of May 2, as well as reports about his colleague, who was injured and transported to the hospital, where he stayed more than three days.
Shahbander sustained serious injuries which took his life and Sharaa broke his leg and received shapnel injuries to his head. The day following the explosion, Karim Wasfi, a cello player with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, started to play amidst the rubble left by the car bomb. He was enraged, sad and defiant and wanted to commemorate the spirit of the victims through music.
Standing nearby, a 20-year-old man said, “Wasfi will eventually give up on striding from explosion area to another, as the blasts are being executed at a high tempo.” Relative calm has prevailed over the last two months in central Baghdad and other urban areas, but the outskirts of the capital did witness security breaches.
United Nations Iraq reported a surge in the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad and other governorates. Since there is no room for wishful thinking at the safety level in Iraq, it seems like security in Iraq has become a dream that is difficult to achieve. The Karrada district is considered a lively and dynamic area that includes headquarters of newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels as well as civil society organizations.
There are also several coffee shops frequented by writers and artists. Compared to the other areas of Baghdad, Karrada is still lively. The area is home to Muslims and Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. Women roam the streets, unveiled, and restaurants stay packed with families well into the late-night hours.
The vital Karrada district is also close to Al-Bab al-Sharqi area, where a station for public transport is located, providing transportation for passengers to most areas of the capital. The explosion that killed Shahbander was not an accidental security breach, as an explosion in the same area on May 9 changed all the equations, and the scene in Iraq became even more dreary.
The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the two blasts. Ivan Hikmat, a children's comic books illustrator, usually spends her holiday with her husband and her 1-year-old daughter at Cafe Ridha Alwan. “[The situation] has become unbearable. This area was all there was left to spend [a] few leisure hours during the holiday,” she told Al-Monitor.
“I don’t believe the government will be able to protect the area or Baghdad. It seems that things are completely beyond the government’s control.” For his part, Hussam al-Saray, head of the House of Iraqi Poetry, told Al-Monitor: “Karrada is a lively place for all people of all sects to come together. However, if things continue to go down the same path, [Karrada] will turn into a traditional, reserved, working-class neighborhood.”
The House of Iraqi Poetry has organized a number of cultural events on Karrada’s sidewalks and in its coffee shops. “What is happening today is insane. We are risking our lives by coming here [to Karrada]. We should move to the coffee shop by the end of the street as death has yet to reach it,” Saray added. Sadness and fear were clear in his voice, unlike the young filmmaker Mouhannad Hayyal’s voice, which was filled with defiance and challenge.
“Death is everywhere in the country, but being scared of sitting in a coffee shop won’t make life here any safer,” he told Al-Monitor. Hayyal meets his colleagues at Cafe Ridha Alwan to discuss their film projects. “IS could drop a bomb on my house any time, and I’ll be dead. Coming back to the coffee shop everyday is the biggest defiance of terrorism and death hovering over the country,” he said.
Nevertheless, death and horror manage to strip life away from the places they visit. Indeed, after May 10, Karrada seemed empty, except for the owners of imported clothes shops. Meanwhile, Cafe Ridha Alwan, where people used to line up to be seated, had no more than 10 visitors.
To encourage people to revisit his coffee shops, the owner posted photos of the famous writers and artists who are regulars at his coffee shop on his Facebook page. Karrada is not the only city losing dozens of people to bombings, and it's expected that the May bombings won’t be the last. Because of the mismanagement of the country’s security dossier, bad omens abound in Iraq.
Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi writer and poet.