IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In Baghdad, survival depends on simpler ways

In war-torn Baghdad, boats ferry determined commuters across the Tigris River.
Josh Partlow
Boat captain Muhammed Abdul Kareem, 35, with his son Abbas, 3, ferries people across Baghdad's Tigris River.Josh Partlow / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

By now they're used to Humvees clogging the highways and blast walls blocking the alleys. Some barely flinch when trucks detonate or mortar shells crash down on the pavement. But when the bridges start falling into the water, determined Baghdad commuters are forced to improvise.

Which is why a 50-year-old shoe salesman is stepping gingerly onto a weathered wooden boat bobbing in the Tigris River, perhaps the only place in Baghdad where one need not worry about an explosion underfoot. "There are no bombs in the water," he said.

To those accustomed to the barren, brown expanse of the Tigris, in recent years primarily the domain of floating corpses and speeding patrol boats, the dozens of skiffs now traversing the river are a striking sight. About 15 feet long and powered by outboard motors, the boats are one more solution, however primitive, that Iraqis have devised to survive their daily rounds in Baghdad.

"When you walk down the street, you don't know if the person next to you is wearing an explosive belt or if there's a bomb in the next car," said the salesman, who gave only his nickname, Abu Zaid Hamdani, out of fear. "I feel more comfortable on the water. I feel psychologically safe."

From the boys selling black-market gasoline from donkey carts, to the abandoned movie theaters, restaurants and liquor stores, from the overflowing sewage to the dwindling food rations, Baghdad has lost its place as a pinnacle of Middle East modernity. Existence has become more rudimentary.

"The people of Baghdad were living on electricity and technology, and now we are stagnated," said Um Mohammed, a mother of three who was shopping in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood for a traditional oven called a tanoor. "Instead of improving ourselves, we are returning back to the Stone Age."

Um Mohammed, who asked that only her nickname be published, had never used a tanoor, a waist-high clay gourd for baking bread over smoldering palm-tree coals. Her bread came from a bakery. But after spending $70 a month on bread for her family, a financial burden made worse by the rising price of cooking gas, she decided to learn.

"I'll probably burn my hand," she said. "We are living in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, of prosperity. Where is the prosperity?"

River becomes a sectarian barrier
Iraqis remember a different Tigris in the decades before the war, back when double-decker party barges cruised past high-rise hotels on warm evenings. For a time, the Ministry of Transportation ran ferries along the river, amid fishermen hoisting fat carp from the silty water.

Back then, the men in the wooden skiffs also plied the water, but now their role has grown into one of necessity, rather than just convenience or amusement. A popular central shopping district along the eastern shore -- Shorja market and Rashid and Jumhuriyah streets -- is now barred to vehicles for fear of bombs. In the past month, three of the 13 bridges spanning the Tigris have been bombed. The gravest attack occurred April 12, when a suicide truck bomb exploded on the Sarafiya span, plunging the steel structure, and several drivers, into the water.

The Tigris, which snakes from north to south through Baghdad, is now as much a sectarian barrier as a physical one, dividing the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods on the west side from the Shiites to the east. For those who still must cross, there is Muhammed Abdul Kareem.

Trained as an accountant, Abdul Kareem, 35, has found nothing in his field in the wartime economy, so he spent $2,300 for a dinghy, charges 75 cents a ride and ekes out a living of about $9 a day as a boat captain.

"There are many more boats now on the river," he said as he motored his craft across the 300-yard expanse toward the western shore, his 3-year-old son, Abbas, nestled between his legs. "The main reason is the traffic is impossible."

The arrival of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers over the past two months, with their new checkpoints, blocked roads and vehicle searches, has made driving in Baghdad like swimming through mud.

Traffic lights don't work; lanes are not observed. A whole economy has sprung up of people selling napkins, gum, balloons, cigarettes, windshield shades, perfume and newspapers to accommodate those bogged down in traffic. It is not uncommon to see cars jump medians and blithely head straight into oncoming traffic, forcing motorists not eager for a head-on collision to drive around them. There may be laws, but there are definitely no rules.

The gridlock finally drove Ibrahim Muhammed down to the riverbank. "All the roads are closed, the bridges are being bombed," he said. "What else can we do?"

'Just smelling the air'
Muhammed, 27, owns a clothing shop in Mansour, west of the river, but buys his wholesale goods from the shops near Najar Street, on the east bank. So he took a boat to the market, bought boxes of tracksuits and bags of shoes, and loaded them on the boat for the ride home. Others ferry furniture and groceries and children's toys. When government jobs let out in the afternoon, lines form along the shore of those waiting for an evening crossing.

But this is no paddle boat cruise among the lily pads. Stray bullets plunge into the water and at times lodge in the boats. The ferries must navigate past the occasional bloated, blindfolded corpse. After the Sarafiya bridge explosion, Iraqi soldiers fired warning shots at the water taxis to keep them away from the bridges, several people said.

"They're afraid we might be going there to bomb the bridges," said Mohammed Mohammed, 23, a boat captain who lives on the west bank of the Tigris.

During the worst fighting in Baghdad, the ferry operators stopped their trips completely, but the demand is so high now that they will brave nearly any risk, said Dawoud Salim, 27, a boat captain. And there are benefits to his line of work, especially in this shuttered city.

"It really is nice to be outside on the river, just smelling the air," he said.

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.