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

Baghdad's Long-Awaited Sign of Hope

Residents heartened by reopening of a once-bustling street, closed soon after the outbreak of violence in the capital.
Hassan Abid - who owns a fish restaurant on Abu Nawas, a once-vibrant Baghdad street, east of the Tigris river - has, like many businessmen in the capital, had a tough time of it over the last few years.

He was forced to close his restaurant after the US-led invasion in 2003, when public access to the street was severely restricted by American troops.

"The situation [here] changed significantly after the fall of the regime," Abid, 37, told this reporter. "No one was coming…to have a good time.”

After several car-bombings, the street - which runs for several kilometres, featuring restaurants, teashops and amusement parks - was blocked off altogether.

Baghdadis have a particular fondness for Abu Nawas, named after a famous and risqué eighth century poet, because it was where “masgoof” fish were prepared on open coal grills, something of a city attraction.

A week ago, Abu Nawas was reopened to the public and visitors once again ambled along its pavements, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the first to do so.

It symbolised a growing hope in Baghdad that the conflict which has torn apart the capital may be ebbing.

The ministry of defence says that violent incidents here have plunged by 70 per cent since February, bringing back some semblance of normalcy.

Baghdadis social and cultural life has been hard hit by the violence. With few public places remaining open, and danger lurking at every turn, residents rarely left their homes, becoming bored and isolated.

"It was important to reopen the Abu Nawas amusement park and the street after the security improved," said Mohammad al-Fazily, spokesman for the Baghdad municipality. "People are looking for hope and for a chance to breath."

The government is also planning to renovate and open other public areas, he said.

Abid hopes the downturn in violence will revive his business fortunes, although he’s concerned that tight security measures still in place around the city will continue to limit visitors to Abu Nawas.

It can take up to half an hour to pass through a checkpoint at the entrance to the street. Vehicles are allowed in, but are not allowed to park near buildings as officials believe car bombers still pose a threat.

Those trickling back to the area since it was reopened primarily live in nearby neighbourhoods, and many are not staying late.

Fazil al-Ebadi, a 50-year-old guard in one of the buildings near Abu Nawas, said that he’s optimistic nonetheless.

"I expect life will return to this street as before," he said. "The security situation has improved and the area is constantly guarded. This will encourage people to come back."

Children - many of whom have not gone to playgrounds for months because of the instability in the capital - seem to be enjoying the public space the most.

"I'm very excited to play with my fiends close to our home," said Ali Ryadh, a nine-year-old boy.

According to Fazily, the reopening of Abu Nawas will lift public spirits, as people may start believing there's a chance that the worst times are now behind them.

"We used to stay up and enjoy [Abu Nawas] until the early morning hours," he said. "I was longing to visit the street because I have unforgettable memories."

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