Friday, 3 October 2008

Iraqis defy violence to celebrate Eid

Iraqis defy violence to celebrate Eid

The Financial Times

By Mary Beth Sheridan in Baghdad
Published: October 1 2008

Ever since the US-led invasion in 2003, Um Abdullah has kept her four children inside on holidays, terrified by the bombings and kidnappings that were tearing the country apart. But on Tuesday, she set out to reclaim her former life.

“We were like in a prison at home,” she said, sitting on the grass in a western Baghdad park, where revelers celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr were picnicking, whirling around a merry-go-round and dancing to the beat of a drum. “But now the situation is getting better — though it’s still not good.”

Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically, with attacks down 83 per cent nationwide in the first three weeks of Ramadan, compared to the same period in 2007, according to US military figures.

But Baghdad residents know the bloodshed isn’t over. On Sunday five bombs blew up around the city, killing 32 people. Um Abdullah, who would not give her full name, said she was on the street where one of the cars exploded, but escaped injury.

“There is a kind of inner conflict,” the teacher explained, describing her mix of hope and fear about venturing out. Ultimately, she decided to take the risk and bring her children, aged 5 to 13, to the park.

“We should go outside,” she declared, “and live.”

The Zawra park was packed with hundreds of people like Um Abdullah, most enjoying the holiday in an open-air venue for the first time in years. Children sported pointy birthday-party-type hats and munched cotton candy. Teenage boys in T-shirts and jeans roller-bladed past women in their finest glittering headscarves.

In the park, you could almost forget the country’s violence — if it weren’t for the full-body patdown at the entrance, the Iraqi soldiers in bulletproof vests strolling near the Ferris wheel, the long coil of concertina wire around the perimeter.

The noisy park was just one sign of residents’ new, wary hope. Another was at the National Theatre, which had triumphantly announced it would hold the first nighttime performance since the invasion.

But just two hours before the 5pm curtain, a white Mitsubishi sedan packed with explosives blew up across the street from the theatre, killing three people and blasting a hole in the pavement. Police barricaded the street, and it appeared the much-heralded cultural event was off.

And then a small miracle occurred. Officials asked the police to re-open the street, and by curtain-time, dozens of theatre-goers had marched into the building, in defiance of the attackers.

“We cannot let the terrorists control us,” said Salam Mijbil, a theatre official. “This bombing is the wind of hate. We will resist this wind and not buckle.”

For their Eid celebrations, a few women even went out in public in knee-length skirts or without headscarves, just like they did in the days when the government of Saddam Hussein maintained a largely secular society. With the rise of religious parties and militias in recent years, most women now cover their hair and wear long robes or skirts.

“They’re not wearing the scarf because they feel safer,” said Um Ali, 53, a seamstress, who had accompanied her two teenage daughters to an ice-cream shop in the middle-class neighbourhood of Karradah. She also declined to give her full name.

But such boldness was rare. And for many, the hope brought by the decline in violence was overshadowed by the pain and suffering they have experienced.

Abu Muhammad, 52, a journalist, brought his wife, son and nephew to Zawra park. But most of their relatives had fled Iraq in recent years because of kidnapping threats and violence. Abu Muhammad said he doesn’t think it is safe enough for them to return.

“We can’t feel this is Eid,” he said. “It’s Eid when you’re with your family.”

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