Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Baghdad Park Bridges Sectarian Divide

By Basim al-Shara

I was riding the bus home from work, staring out the window as we crossed the bustling al-Sinek Bridge in central Baghdad. The bridge runs over the Tigris River, and I noticed that convoys of four-wheel drive vehicles were crossing in the wrong direction.

Just then, my mobile phone rang and a number I did not know appeared on the screen. At first, I was scared because many journalists receive threats from unknown numbers. After hesitating for a few seconds, I decided to answer and was pleasantly surprised to hear a friend’s voice.

Mohammed is my childhood friend whom I have not seen since the end of 2006, when he was driven out of our area by Shia militants.

Mohammed asked to see me, and I suggested that he come to al-Karrada neighbourhood in central Baghdad. He refused, instead suggesting we meet in al-Zawra park - not too far from his family’s new home, which is controlled by Sunni militants.

I asked Mohammed during the call whether the park was safe enough for us to meet.

"There is no reason at all to be afraid in this place," he told me.

A few days later, we had an intimate, warm and wonderful meeting. The experience inspired me to write a story about Shia and Sunni friends who meet up in Baghdad. I asked one of the park’s security guards whether there were a lot of get-togethers there. He said there were, and most happened on Fridays.

The next Friday, I went to the park to work on the story. I sat close enough to watch a young man sitting alone. He looked afraid when he glanced at me, and nervously wrung his hands. A few minutes later, his friend walked up and they embraced tightly, their eyes filling with tears.

I decided to talk to them, and it turned out that their situation was similar to that of my friend and me: They were two young men from different sects who had lived together in a mixed Baghdad neighbourhood, al-Hurriyah, that has been controlled by Shia militias since late 2006.

I wanted to talk to more people in the park, and one of the security guards told me about some youth who played football there. They were a mixture of Sunni and Shia from different Baghdad neighbourhoods.

When I started talking to a couple of the guys, the rest gathered around us. One, a Shia, told me that his brother and some of his friends were killed by al-Qaeda. The second, a Sunni, said that several of his friends and relatives were killed by Shia militias.

Both seemed hostile to the other sect. After chatting for a while, I asked if either was prepared to kill a member of another sect to exact revenge for the loss of their loved ones.

The two kept silent for a moment, saying they were not murderers. But they said they felt obsessed with feelings of grief and sorrow.

My biggest challenge was not finding people to speak to in the park - it was getting park officials to talk to. I mostly wanted to find out how many people were coming here to meet old friends, but official park sources were reluctant to even talk with me about this.

Many people have been assassinated in the capital, making it difficult for reporters to get official sources to talk. I had a long chat with a park source and finally convinced him that talking to me about attendance at the park wouldn’t offend anyone, and we agreed that I would not use his name.

Journalists in Iraq can often interview statesmen, ministers and MPs, but civil servants are less familiar with journalism and are afraid to talk to the media.

I went to interview a university professor at Baghdad University who said that Iraqis were gradually rejecting militias and extremism. While I was on campus, I interviewed some students and discovered that many were forming friendships across the sectarian divide.

In the past, I hadn’t been able to spend time in public places before because of security concerns. But the story underlined for me the importance of speaking to ordinary people to get an idea how society is changing.

Basim al-Shara is an IWPR correspondent in Baghdad.

Link to original article by Basim al-Shara, published in ICR No. 242, 04-Jan-08.

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