“What images do you find online if you look up the cities of Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit?” asks Ahmed Al-Baghdadi, a smiling kid flipping through images on a screen. Gutted buildings, armed men, destruction. “Here’s what we’re doing instead,” he says.
Iraqi youths are now reclaiming spaces long occupied by armies, militias, and men armed with Kalashnikovs. Here in Baghdad, in the large conference hall of the Society of Iraqi Engineers, Al-Baghdadi compares the difference between what was before and what is now, between stereotypes and reality. He is showing us images of the activities of Sports Against Violence Iraq: “initiatives that create cultural bridges, social ties and cohesion through sports.”
Al-Baghdadi is one of the activists of the Iraqi Civil Society Initiative (ICSSI). Established in Italy in 2009, thanks to a network of international and Iraqi NGOs, trade unions and social movements, the ICSSI held a four-day conference in Baghdad, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, to take stock of their achievements and of what remains to be done.
“A positive bottom line: civil society is expanding its spaces and is more effective than before, but activists are still facing risks,” Martina Pignatti Morano tells il manifesto. She is responsible for the peacebuilding activities of “Un ponte per…”, an Italian NGO that has been working in Iraq for years, side by side with the movements fighting for social transformation. The key word: non-violent.
“It is not just a practical choice, but a prerequisite for building a new society,” says Ismaeel Dawood as he shows us sights from Baghdad, places that hold many personal memories. The city has changed a lot. In recent months, it has even managed to do so for the better. There is less violence, fewer terrorist attacks and less insecurity. The population is breathing a sigh of relief.
“It’s very important that the conference is taking place for the first time here in Baghdad. This is the real face of Iraq!” say Taif Alwachi with great passion, who just turned 28 years old and has an infectious smile. It is also the first time since 2003 that “such a large delegation of foreigners came without armed escort,” Martina Pignatti Morano adds. In the hall are present nearly 200 Iraqis and 41 foreigners.
An Iraqi by birth and an adoptive Pisan, Ismaeel Dawood embodies the strengthened connection between Iraqis and non-Iraqis. Best practices need to be developed together, and they also search for the most effective strategies together. “But lasting solutions can only come from within,” says Florent Schaeffer from CCFD-Terre solidarie, one of the partners of the initiative. The goal is twofold: to repair the damage caused by the conflict, close rifts and heal wounds—and, in doing so, to try to build an inclusive society, one committed to social justice and in which the youth play a fundamental role.
Students, musicians, boys with slick hair and girls with or without a veil: the volunteers and activists gathered here in Baghdad have clear ideas and energy to spare. “They are an advance guard, a slice of society, perhaps a minority, but an authentic expression of the energy that can be felt throughout the country,” notes Domenico Chirico from “Un ponte per…”.
Huda Jabbar is working on ecology and environmental protection. Ali Al-Karkhi is part of the Iraqi Social Forum, and Mustafa Jassim and Abdullah Khalel are doing organizing work. Like many of their generation, they are doing politics with a smile. They have the enthusiasm of 20-somethings, but also the political maturity to discuss sensitive issues: the relationship with the institutions, the balance between activism, volunteering and the projects to be pursued, the challenges of reconstruction, and the centrifugal forces affecting a very diverse country.
“Here are communities that are different, by virtue of history, religion, language. We have to re-learn to live together, to find cohesion.” That is much less present when there is no equality, when the resources, limited as they are, are taken by the strongest. This includes environmental ones: “Without equitable access to natural resources, there is no justice,” says Salman Khairalla at the end of the conference. Then, the music takes over and gets everyone dancing.
Farhan: “Make some room for the Yazidi people”
“We deserve to live like everyone else, we too are human beings”: the appeal by Farhan Ibrahim is a moving one. An activist and representative of the Youth Bridge Organization, he hails from Sinjar, near the Syrian border. He is part of the Yazidi community, among the minorities who have borne the brunt of the sectarian violence of the Islamic State. “Many have not returned yet. They would like to return, but they fear that the men from Daesh will return as well.” Despite everything, he has hope: “We have opened up a youth center, the spaces for civil society are limited, but we are fighting to expand them. We need international solidarity.”
The Nineveh plain: Alla breaks down walls
“We need to understand the reasons for the conflict, the divisive issues between communities and among communities. If we understand what divides us, we can rebuild mutual trust.” Alla Refiq leads Bridging Communities, a project organized by “Un ponte per…” in the Nineveh province, in the country’s northwest, where the conflict has destroyed towns and villages, as well as social, community and institutional bonds. Everything was blown up, “and all have suffered.” Reconciliation “is a long process, but the results are starting to arrive.” Last year, on June 2, in Qaraqosh, more than 70 representatives of the communities of the Nineveh plain signed a declaration for peaceful co-existence.
Jameel’s poem for the children of Daesh
“No one takes care of them. They are left to fend for themselves.” A journalist and activist, writer and poet, Jameel al-Jameel is working to take care of the family members of ISIS fighters. “There are at least 6,000 families in the refugee camps of Al-Salamiya and Hammam Al-Alil, near Mosul,” he tells il manifesto. “Especially women and children. If they’re marginalized, this will lead to more terrorism.” His is a choice that many find controversial, in a country still suffering from the violence of the Islamic State. “They criticize me. They say I am a disgrace to all Christians. But it is our religion that teaches us forgiveness.”
Zhalian turns up the volume: “Give a voice to women”
“When you’re an activist, you’re a woman twice over. As a community member, and as an activist, who takes an exposed position and demands rights. You need twice the strength.” Zhalian Ahmeed is part of the Kurdistan Social Forum that began in Erbil in 2017, she works for the Al-Mesalla Organization for Human Resources Development, and she is also the acclaimed vocalist of the Mshakht musical ensemble. “There is a lack of good laws, and there is a widespread patriarchal mentality.” The war has made the situation even more serious: “The women were abducted, reduced to slaves, raped and humiliated. We need sensitivity to heal the trauma. And we need to let women speak for themselves.”
Art for peace: Fatima builds a community
“Art is a powerful tool. It speaks to everyone, regardless of their origin. We use it to convey messages of peace,” says Fatima al-Wardi, the young coordinator of the Arts of Peace Team from the Iraqi Social Forum. Luca Chiavinato, a Venetian musician, tells us: “[M]usic breaks down cultural barriers and creates new bonds, describes our identity, tells our story.” Hence the decision to organize a series of music workshops in Iraq, established thanks to the support of the YaBasta association. Over time, it has created a real community of musicians (“we count about 170 in the whole country”), and led to the birth of the Mshakht ensemble.
In (public) school with Wissam
“If it doesn’t start from the schools, the reconstruction will be a frail one.” For Wissam Ibrahim Anber, a member of the Ufuq NGO and of the Iraqi Social Forum, education is as crucial as it is neglected. “There are no adequate buildings. There are up to 50-60 students per class. The dropout rate is very high. Teachers are not up-to-date. There is a lack of state investment: only 3% of the budget is set apart for education.” The latest danger, he explains, “is the attempt to privatize much of the education sector.” It is necessary to “understand the link between education and citizenship, and public investment and the quality of teaching.”
A union at work – without borders
“From Iraq to the United States, one people, one single fight!” An Emeritus Professor of Economics at Stony Brook University in New York, Michael Zweig is among the leaders of US Labor Against the War, a network of trade unions and workers that was organized in the United States in 2003, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am here to fix the errors of our governments,” he says. Next to him, we find Iraqi trade unionists Wesam Chaseb and Falal Alwan, the latter a former president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI). “Workers are being exploited all over the world. International solidarity is key.” Mustafa Qusay, one of the younger activists and researchers, tells us that “in the unions, the generational difference is taken for granted. But the government is not fully respecting the freedom of association.”
Water in common for the peoples of the two rivers
Salman Khairalla is 30 years old and works for environmental justice. He is the co-founder, together with Ali Al-Karkhi of Humat Dijlah, of a network of observers and caretakers of the Tigris River, and is the coordinator of the Save the Tigris and Marshes campaign, promoted by an international coalition to protect the Tigris and the Mesopotamian marshlands from intensive exploitation, pollution and destructive dams. In addition to being a vital part of the heritage of local communities, water resources are also a source of international conflict. The country’s relationship with Iran, Syria and Turkey is not an easy one. On April 5-7, the Mesopotamian Water Forum will be held in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan: “From a source of conflict, water can become a force for cooperation among all the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates area,” say the conference’s organizers.