In Baghdad's Tahrir Square — the epicenter of Iraq’s biggest demonstrations since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 — the once lowly rickshaw is king.
Until protests and clashes broke after Oct. 25, tuk-tuk operators hailing largely from Baghdad’s roughest neighborhoods were dismissed as reckless and, well, terrible drivers.
But their reputation has changed. With ambulances and supply trucks getting stuck in huge crowds and behind barricades set up by demonstrators demanding an end to rampant official corruption and dismal public services, nimble tuk-tuks are ferrying water, food, masks and the injured — for free.
On a recent day in Tahrir Square, a clutch of protesters waving Iraqi flags erupted into cheers as a three-wheeled tuk-tuk carrying a bleeding and motionless body raced through a crowd.
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“They are the heroes of this protest,” Malak Ali Abdulrahman, 25, an engineer, said. “They made mistakes when they used to drive their tuk-tuks on the streets of Baghdad. But now they proved that they are more than just tuk-tuk drivers.”
The tuk-tuks' services are indeed essential during protests that have grown increasingly deadly, with over 300 demonstrators killed and around 15,000 protesters and security personnel injured. On Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused security forces of firing on medical workers, tents and ambulances with tear gas and live ammunition.
The rickshaws are now a unifying symbol for those calling for change — so much so that the demonstrators' free newspaper is called “Tuk tuk.”
This new status has helped transform Jafar Mohammed's outlook on life.
The 15-year-old driver from Sadr City — a huge and predominantly Shiite slum in Baghdad — said he is proud of his role in the demonstrations sweeping his country.
“We are not ashamed of being poor anymore because the protest is not going to succeed without us being beside the demonstrators,” he said.
Mohammed added that he goes to the protest every day, especially near barricades built on bridges connecting Tahrir Square to the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.
“I must be on the bridge on the front line to be close to protesters who might get shot or hurt,” he said. “My country wants me to be here, so here I am.”
Murtadha Ali, 23, explains how he and fellow drivers decided to act.
“We were able to organize ourselves in the first two days of protest. Meanwhile, the government could not organize itself in 16 years,” he said. “The drivers have not finished school, they did not participate in managing training courses, but because we love our country we could do this.”
Vivi Vitalone is a London-based desk editor for NBC News.