Dodging Militias, Stockpiling Food: Life in Baghdad Today

Sinan Al Dulaimi, 43, works for the United Nations in Baghdad, where he has lived in the eastern Zayouna area since he was 14.

In a telephone interview on June 16, he described life in a 1,300-year-old capital with about 7 million people that has fallen from being one of the Arab world’s cultural hubs to a ghettoized city marred by bomb blasts and sectarian killings.

His neighborhood was established by former President Abdel Karim Qasim, who took power in a 1958 coup and gave 600-square-meter plots to army officers to build homes.

Now, fighters from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are about 50 miles from Baghdad after taking Mosul and Tikrit in the north. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani have called for Shiites to arm themselves to counter the radical Sunni group.

“The situation in Baghdad is very bad. The entrance to the city closes at 10 p.m.; it used to close at 1 a.m. Curfew starts at midnight and ends at 5 a.m.

‘‘Soldiers are checking identification papers at checkpoints and since last Friday’s fatwa against ISIL by the Shia clerics, Shia militia have been deployed on the streets and have set up illegal checkpoints.’’ [Dulaimi is Sunni.]

‘Huge Lines’

‘‘You can see huge lines of people outside banks trying to withdraw cash. Otherwise, the streets are mostly empty.

‘‘We’ve stockpiled food. We’re all worried about food -- cooking oil, rice, those basics -- and prices are rising. Ten kilos of rice usually costs $10, now it costs more than $25.

‘‘I limit my movements to my neighborhood. Each one is closed on itself, many surrounded by checkpoints and concrete, which they put up in 2007 after the sectarian violence of end-2005 and 2006. My neighborhood has just one exit/entrance.

‘‘Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians have all lived here. It’s still mixed but it’s Shia majority now. People who moved here recently are buying the houses of former army officers. It’s a dream for them, and they’re trying to fit in so there are no extremists or sectarians. For my safety this is good, to be protected by Shia. Sometimes we hear stories about local killings, but they’re fueled by money, not sectarianism.’’

‘‘I want to avoid car bombings, another reason I don’t leave my neighborhood. I do shopping here though it costs more - - five loaves of bread is $1 versus in the local market outside where $1 buys 10 loaves. Here, it’s about $14-15 per kilo of mutton, outside it’s $10.

Buying Water

‘‘Tap water isn’t healthy for cooking or drinking; we have to buy that, too.

‘‘Power only comes on for about 4-6 hours a day so I supplement with private generators. I pay, like, $250 a month for that. You can’t use ACs with private generators, just TVs, fridges, lights and air coolers. In 1985, my house was cooled by ACs. Now, we use air coolers. We didn’t even use them during the 1970s.

‘‘There’s no electricity and there’s garbage everywhere, but house prices have been getting higher and higher. In my neighborhood, you can’t buy a house for less than $300,000 and that would be for a 150-square-meter house. For 600 square meters, it’s not less than $900,000, up to $1.2 million.

‘‘The average salary isn’t enough to cover all this.”

Rising Crime

“Crime has also been a big problem over the last two to three years and not just in Baghdad but all the provinces, except way up north. Especially robberies. If you work as a contractor or have a good job, organized gangs have information about you. I never used to lock the doors. Now, we lock them and we have security systems.

‘‘We moved our daughter to a private Christian school in the neighborhood. It’s summer holidays so she’s not going. It’s unsafe for her to go outside, but I find things for her to do inside.

‘‘This is the beginning of more sectarian violence and there’s nothing Maliki can do. He’s the problem.

‘‘It started two years ago with peaceful protests in Sunni areas like Ramadi. They had demands and there were solutions. But he called them extremists when it wasn’t the case and sent security forces to attack them. That happened several times. Then they picked up guns and there were weekly clashes between security forces and the tribes. He doesn’t know anything about politics.”

Protecting Daughter

“My wife is a teacher -- her school is inside the neighborhood -- we have daily discussions about what’s going on. All our worries are about our daughter, who’s 9. We saw a lot in our lives and don’t want her to see any of that. We have to leave. We can’t go somewhere inside Iraq because it’s the same everywhere.

‘‘This country used to be secular. Religion was private, for the home, the mosque, not the street.

‘‘I can’t remember what I did yesterday but I remember my childhood clearly. It was a glorious age for me. I had so many friends -- boys and girls -- we used to play outside, we went to theaters, cinemas, parties, up north in the summer. Boys of 14 ask me what I was doing at their age and they’re shocked it could have been like that. They’re living in a different time. We don’t hear laughter in the streets anymore.

‘‘We never imagined that one day we’d reach this point. I think this is the end. This country has collapsed.”

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