A banner flies above the Al Zaitoon bridge. It is dedicated to Ahmed, 21 years old, who was killed by the security forces as he knelt down to help a wounded young man during a peaceful demonstration in the squares of Nassiriya. There are a few flowers, a candle, an Iraqi flag—while the Euphrates flows in the background.
Under the bridge, among the walls that run along the center of the city and the pillars that support the structure, hundreds of young people are making street art. They’re painting banners, quotes in praise of peace—“I have a dream,” one can read on a wall—hearts and the faces of other young people just like them who have fought and lost their lives for an ideal. They are both boys and girls, mostly teenagers, drawing together, listening to music and singing an updated version of “Bella Ciao.”
“It’s a song of revolution, a song of battle, isn’t it?” R. tells us when we ask him where they learned it from.
As a 22-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a surgeon tells us, here in Iraq, if you go out into the streets to protest, you’re risking your life. But it’s better to die than to live like this, she says. So, what are they protesting against? What is worth dying for? They are protesting against the machinations involving the money that comes in from the oil trade, which doesn’t reach the local population. Against the near-nonexistent rule of law and against corruption. Unemployment and poverty are running rampant in the country, and children are born with such serious malformations that we haven’t seen in Italy for more than 50 years.
This is all due to malnutrition, in a country that has all the natural resources and raw materials it needs to live in full autonomy and prosperity. In a state that calls itself democratic, the police are going into bars, searching people’s phones and confiscating them if they find any content considered dangerous or suspicious. “Suspicious content” means any message or photo that shows that the owner of the phone took part in one of the demonstrations that are happening daily on the streets of Nassiriya.
Starting on Oct. 1, internet access was completely blocked; then, after the first protests, it was limited to three or four hours per day, but with very little bandwidth available, which prevents people from sharing photos and videos, or at least makes it very difficult. One has to use a VPN, which allows you to connect without disclosing where you’re really connecting from. The kids show us how to do it: we download an app and that’s it.
Since the beginning of October, the schools have been closed, just like the public offices. Every day, or almost, teachers and doctors and “educated people”—as one of the doctors we meet at one of these peaceful marches puts it—take to the streets to demonstrate against the corruption of the government. Among them, we talk to Saadi Alasadi, who returned home to march alongside his fellow citizens after living and working in London as a doctor for many years.
The youngsters accompany us to Habboubi Square, one of the main places where the demonstrators gather: amidst songs, dances and flags worn on one’s body or waved around joyfully, we see elderly people, children holding the hands of their parents, women with stalls offering fresh lemonade to all those who pass by. The general atmosphere is festive, even though the police had attacked the demonstrators on these very streets just a few days earlier.
The average age of the demonstrators is between 15 and 25, but even younger children have made their voices heard in the squares of Nassiriya. It is not uncommon to see parents holding their children’s hands. They are marching together in a compact mass, waving Iraqi flags that symbolize belonging to a land that they don’t feel is being represented by the government. However, all we see in Italian media are photos of burnt tires and boys with their faces covered with kufiyahs who seem to be praising violence. Those images only show the final stages of the demonstrations, when the protesters light up bonfires with old tires in order to raise a dense, black, acrid-smelling curtain of smoke that hides the young protestors from the sight of the police. It’s a protective measure, which is in any case nearly useless given the number of deaths from the live ammunition of the special forces.
The riot police and the militias which have infiltrated them haven’t even spared the hospitals, as a doctor who is taking part in the demonstrations tells us. On Nov. 9, they attacked a local hospital with tear gas: the outcome of the attack was nine people wounded and three suffering from gas poisoning. The electricity keeps getting cut off in the city and in the hospitals, which are continuing their work in spite of everything: there are no generators, so they perform surgeries by torch light.
The worst, however, happened in the early hours of Nov. 28, with the most violent intervention against unarmed citizens since the beginning of the protests, in which the special forces used every weapon available to them. A contingent of 10,000 was sent out against the demonstrators, with full permission to fire on the crowd to end the unrest, regardless of the cost in human lives. The Iraqi army, which had remained neutral until that point, was told to leave the city. The attack began at 3:05 a.m. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi (who later resigned) was the one who gave the order to fire on the demonstrators. The attack left 100 dead, 350 seriously injured and many missing. The majority of the victims were between 15 and 25 years old, but the youngest was just 13.
The civilians protesting in Nassiriya have addressed an appeal to the Italian government, with which they have maintained a relationship of friendship and mutual aid over the years (the memory of the presence of our soldiers on the field is still strong here), and to the UN Security Council: they are asking for help to avoid even more violent repression in the future. After Saddam’s fall, there was a semblance of democratization in the country, but then the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites and the advent of ISIS have plunged the country into a state of violence and poverty.
At this point, no one among the Iraqis feels represented by the government, and the prevailing notion is that Iran is the puppet master behind the government and the armed militias associated with the political parties. They are protesting and fighting for a land to which they feel they belong, but which is still being pillaged. But they’re still here: they go into the streets even at the cost of their lives.
Despite everything, a feeling of hope prevails. “This time, we’ll be able to change things,” say the kids who are marching in the streets and trying to paint a future in very different colors.