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

Baghdadis Keep a Low Profile

Residents fearful of the murderous gangs roaming their streets are careful not to draw attention to themselves.
By Hussein al-Yasiri
Mahmood, 30, is a car dealer, but drives around Baghdad in a battered old vehicle, while newer, more expensive models gather dust in his garage.



He likes to be as inconspicuous as possible after he narrowly escaped with his life while heading home in his Mercedes Benz. A gang tried to rob him and opened fire as he sped away, some of the bullets hitting the car.



With murder, kidnapping and burglary a daily feature of Baghdad life, people like Mahmood choose to take their own precautions rather than rely on the police or other security forces for protection.



For women, the perils of being on the street on their own are such that they always try to ensure that they’re escorted by a male member of their family or join up with a group of people when they go out - if they go out at all.



Parents who still send their kids to school pick them up after class. Those who do not have a car hire busses to ferry the children home, but not before making sure they can trust the driver not to hand them over to kidnapping gangs.



Sumaiya Faruq, 12, wears the hijab along with the standard blue school uniform for girls when she attends her primary school in the tense neighbourhood of Dora in the south of Baghdad. She used to walk to class but now her parents pay a driver 60,000 Iraqi dinars (40 US dollars) per month to take her and her sister to school.



Even though she’s escorted, Sumaiya worries about being held up at one the many bogus checkpoints set up by militants across the city or being blown by a roadside or car bomb. "I’m terrified whenever I go to school," said the little girl.



Joseph Yousif’s son Nabil, 18, was kidnapped last year on his way home from school. Fortunately, the kidnappers were stopped at a police checkpoint. Officers found the boy unconscious in the trunk of the car.



Since then, Nabil has been escorted to school by two guards, members of the three-man-security team Yousif hired to protect his family for 900 dollars per month. The men, all Shia, were recommended to Yousif, a Christian, by a friend and until now have proved to be loyal to their employer. In other cases, guards have colluded with criminals to commit crimes against the families they’re supposed to be protecting. "Thank God so far I have had no problems,” said Yousif.



The journey to school is so dangerous that teachers have grown used to classes where only half or less of their students turn up. They permit parents to decide for themselves whether it’s safe enough to let their kids go to school.



Caution is the watchword: don’t make a journey unless you absolutely have to and if you do try to be as inconspicuous as possible, something Baghdadis have learnt to do very well. No one wears fancy clothes or jewelry - and expensive cars and top of the range mobile phones are a rare sight.



Fahwa Faysal, a lawyer, stopped driving her BMW out of fear of attracting unwanted attention. And instead of visiting the main shopping centres in downtown Baghdad she now only goes to stores in her immediate neighbourhood. She’s also changed her appearance, dispensing with fashionable clothes for more modest attire and a veil.



People go to such lengths to conceal their wealth and status that they leave their jobs and homes.



Goldsmith Salah Hasan, 32, used to live in Mansoor, a once upmarket neighbourhood in western Baghdad. After his 18-year-old son was kidnapped and released for a ransom of 35,000 dollars, Hasan rented a house in a less affluent neighbourhood, sold his BMW and new Toyota Camry, buying two old cars instead, and opened a small electrical appliance shop.



Those who work for the Iraqi security forces or for the multi-national forces have to be particularly vigilant as they are a prime target of kidnappers and death squads who view them as collaborators.



Omar Mahmood, 34, from Baghdad, who serves as an officer in the Iraqi army in the south, told his family and neighbours that he works as a taxi driver.



"I have had to hide my occupation for a long time,” he said. “Under Saddam, we were proud of joining the army. But now we are afraid of even keeping our military uniforms at home."



Sarmad Aziz, 28, works as a translator for American troops, sometimes sleeps at his military base. When he’s at home, he keeps his gun next to him at all times, rarely sleeping more than two hours, as he’s fearful that someone might burst into the house. And when he goes to work, he always uses a different route.



Aziz Ala, a social researcher at the ministry of labour and social affairs, believes that unless something is done to curb the criminal gangs that roam the streets of Baghdad, they could in time take over.



"If the state continues to turn a blind eye to these crimes, uncontrollable organised crime could take hold, dominating our daily lives and politics.”



Hussein al-Yasiri is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.



This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

More IWPR's Global Voices