Baghdadis live with constant threat of violence

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.

Don’t forget us, Iraqi Christians’ plea to UK bishops

THE bishop overseeing the needs of displaced Christian families in northern Iraq called on an ecumenical delegation to ensure Britain does not forget the plight of Iraq’s suffering Christians. Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil made the plea to UK Christian leaders from the Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican communities visiting northern Iraq. 

“The needs are huge—the Church has achieved a lot here, but there is such a lot to do,” Archbishop Warda said. “Please remember us and please keep telling the story in churches, in the media and to your politicians—don’t let them forget the Christians here and in the Middle East.” 

His message came at the end of a trip to the region by Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and Bishop William Kenney, Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Birmingham, who were joined by the Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet Jonathan Goodall and Dr Michael Nazir Ali, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester. 

Bishop Angaelos, the moderator of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, described how the prelates’ trip was a sign of solidarity with those had had been forced to flee their homes. 

He said the visit ‘was an opportunity for us to tell them that they were not forgotten, that they are in our hearts and in our prayers; that we are not just praying for them from the comfort of being in Britain, but that we are willing to go and stand side by side with them and pray with them, seeing where they live, listening to their experiences, and pledging to do the best we possibly can to help them.’ 

The project trip, organised by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, included visits to camps and centres for displaced Iraqis in Erbil. The party also saw monasteries and displaced communities around Al Qosh, Dohuk, Araden and Barzan receiving help from ACN and other charities. 

“I am very thankful to Aid to the Church in Need for organising this trip because it was an opportunity for us to go as bishops from the breadth of the tradition of the Church in Britain, and to be able to experience first-hand what is happening in Kurdistan, and with the displaced people of Iraq; to be able to share their journeys, and to share in their pain,” Bishop Angaelos said.  

“I was also inspired by their resilience, seeing that there is a lot of need, but also how much good work is being done for them.” 

Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need UK, who was also on the trip, spoke about how the aid effort in northern Iraq had impressed him. “It was inspirational to see what the Church has achieved in such a short time with the support of benefactors and Christian communities around the world,” he said.