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

Disabled Wardens Get Green Light

Handicapped volunteers have started to help out Baghdad’s traffic police with growing jams.
By Ghasan Ali

At a busy traffic junction in the Bayaa neighbourhood of the capital, Akram Alewi raises one hand to stop vehicles, while directing another stream of cars forward with the other, a whistle in his mouth ready to pull up offending motorists.


It may sound like an every day scene, but there is one slight difference: Alewi has been confined to a wheelchair since 1986 when he lost both legs, fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.


The forty-year-old volunteer, one of a growing number, has been helping the municipality’s traffic department since the end of the war in April 2003.


“Before the fall of the regime I worked at the same junction, selling cigarettes to add to my disabled person’s pension. I got just 27,000 dinars (18 US dollars) every three months and I have five kids, so it was never enough,” said Alewi.


“I started off helping out the young traffic policemen after the fall of Baghdad, when everything was chaotic. There were hardly any officers and even when they were there, people didn’t take any notice of them.”


Living in a nearby complex designed and built by the former regime to house the war wounded, Alewi has a short commute to work and says he intends to keep on helping out.


“I am going to keep doing this because I enjoy it much more than my old job, even though the money isn’t as good,” he said.


“The majority of the drivers cooperate with me. Some give me 500 dinars, sweets or fruit to show they appreciate my work.”


With the driving in Baghdad still erratic at best, spending all day at a busy intersection does carry its risks. Alewi has been hit by cars a couple of times - but never badly hurt. When his wheelchair was damaged by a vehicle, the driver bought him another one.


That’s not the only narrow escape he’s said he’s had, “A car bomb exploded at the junction a few months ago, and killed a lot of people. It went off half an hour before I was due to arrive. Two hours later, they had cleared the road and I was back organising traffic at the same place.”


Alewi’s colleague Hassan Kadhum, who lost his right hand to cancer, works at a junction in the al-Amil district of the city.


“I chose to work here because there are hardly ever any traffic police around. I live nearby and saw that something needed to be done to stop the traffic jams that build up here,” he said.


Before his amputation he had been working in a café, a job he couldn’t continue doing after the operation. With no social services and limited government assistance, Kadhum knew he would have to find another way to earn money.


But since few employers are willing to take on physically handicapped staff, he now relies on 250 dinar handouts he gets from drivers.


“I have been working here for a year. I started because I had the spare time and somebody needed to sort out the traffic here,” he said.


Karim Abas, the traffic officer in charge of this area of Baghdad, says he encourages his new band of volunteers, “They do a good job organising the traffic, people seem to respect them.


"The volunteers generally need money, so I really hope they can get a little cash from the drivers. But at the same time, I’m always afraid something might happen to them.”


Bus driver Muhammad Hamed is one of Alewi’s fans. “Akram is a great guy. He really took things in hand after the collapse of the regime when everything was crazy. People here respect him more than they do the other traffic police. I think because they are more sympathetic to him, they are more likely to stop when he tells them to,” he said.


Ghasan Ali is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.


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