Iraq has been suffering from political instability and violence for decades, deeply affecting Iraqi society. The ongoing crisis has pitted communities against each other, led to political and economic strife and hindered the establishment of a capable and responsible Iraqi state.
Today, while so called Islamic State (IS) is losing territory, the large scale suffering of the Iraqi people persists and receives scant attention in the global media. There are still more than 3.4 million people displaced in the country and more than 10 million Iraqis in need of humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, losing land has led IS to change tactics and resort increasingly to terrorist attacks against civilians.
Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, has become the theater for many painful terrorist attacks leading to the death of hundreds of civilians. The horrific blast in Karrada on July 3rd was the deadliest ever attack carried out by IS, killing nearly 300 people.
I talked to Saif al-Majid, a young Iraqi volunteer, about life in Baghdad especially after the attack in Karrada, and learned how many young people are reacting to these events through voluntary work and civic engagement.
BAGHDAD THROUGH THE EYES OF A CIVIL SOCIETY VOLUNTEER
Iraqi society is one of the youngest in the world. Half of the population is less than 19 years old and about a third are aged between 15 and 29. Despite the pain and suffering, many youth in Iraq refuse to surrender to despair.
Saif al-Majid is one of the young Iraqi volunteers engaged in campaigns that aim to support displaced people and encourage values of volunteerism, cooperation and solidarity.
At first Saif spoke with affection about Baghdad, the city he loves. He told me that despite atrocities and war, “Baghdad has refused to give in to pain”. Iraqi people are resilient. They love life and make the most of it. Yet, following the attack in Karrada last month, people had become scared. It felt at times, he said, that the city had suddenly “lost its life.” Baghdad today is a city in shock, mourning its dead.
AIMING AT THE CITY'S HEART
He explained that part of the shock is because Karrada is in the heart of Baghdad and is home to famous cultural sites such as the national theatre and Ibn al-Nawas Street. It was the place where people meet up, to spend their holidays, do shopping and enjoy cafes. It is indeed reported that many were watching the Euro 2016 quarterfinals in cafes in Karrada when the attack took place.
In addition, Karrada has a symbolic importance. It is well known for its tolerance and cultural diversity. Iraqis of different backgrounds were drawn to Karrada during the toughest times of the sectarian civil war. Saif said that Karrada was attacked for what it symbolizes and to inflict further pain and misery on ordinary Iraqis.
A friend of Saif died in the attack. His name was Adil Farag, also known as Adil Yoro. Adil was a talented Iraqi dancer and indeed one of the few men dancers in Iraq. At the time of his death, he was planning to continue his studies in the United States.
Despite the atrocities, Iraqi youth refuse to succumb. Many have met and begun to plan together a better future for their country. One of the unique ways to be active in Iraq is to take part in youth campaigns which are an increasingly common form of civic engagement, especially for those who use social media. These campaigns aim to provide a public benefit and to support fellow citizens, especially those in need. They are not officially registered yet some campaigns have become so successful that established organisations as well as the government have started to work with them.
The goal of these campaigns is to encourage solidarity and cooperation amongst youth and to help prepare for and build Iraq’s future. To achieve these goals, Saif explained that these campaigns have a ‘circular model’ of management in that they do not have a hierarchical leadership structure. All volunteers share responsibility and mutual accountability for the group. The hope is that the values nourished in these campaigns will be reflected in the wider society in the future.
One of the campaigns in which Saif volunteers is ‘Basmat Amal’. This campaign aims to build “a recovered society” which Saif defines as a society that is free of social “diseases” such as intolerance and sectarianism. Basmat Amal focuses on supporting and facilitating cooperation and volunteerism as well as fostering the experience of solidarity and responsibility. Some of their activities include restoring schools, supporting children with cancer and distributing aid to displaced people.
A particularly successful initiative focused on the arts is the peace carnival in Baghdad.
BAGHDAD-THE CITY OF PEACE CARNIVAL
One of the ancient names of Baghdad is the City of Peace. In 2010, a group of young Iraqis found that a google search for Baghdad brought nothing but pictures of explosions and military action. These young people vowed to bring back that name to their city through providing a peaceful space that engaged youth and civil society associations. The carnival launched in 2011 and is held yearly on World Peace Day.
The Baghdad City of Peace Carnival started with a small number of volunteers and attracted around 500 people. In 2015, the number of volunteers had grown to 650 and attendance exceeded 10,000. In the midst of war, the carnival provides two hours of peace and joy.
Saif told me that the annual carnival, and the preparations around it, encourage peace in all aspects of life and inspire youth to refrain from engaging in the violence rampant in today’s Iraq. It gives a chance to talented young people to engage in drawing, music and other forms of art. The carnival also provides a chance for the youth movement to raise awareness of their work. While the carnival was dependant on donations, today the event is self-sustaining through advertising and partnerships.
Despite pain and atrocities, many young Iraqis like Saif refuse to give in to despair. Youth campaigns and their civil society associations support those in desperate need. But they are also a vibrant, inspiring and determined manifestation of Iraqi youth standing in defiance against the violence in their midst, and claiming and building a peaceful future for their country.