This sad note about the circumstances of Ammar al-Shahbander’s death just came in from a senior board member of the Next Century Foundation:
The fall of Ramadi is the news about Iraq which hits the news casts and front pages of most American media. However, it is the increased tempo of bombings by ISIS in Baghdad — and even in usually secure Irbil in Kurdistan — which is more indicative of the pronounced threat to the country since the April 2014 general election.
Depicting this very disconcerting development were two bombings in the vibrant Baghdad district of Karrada earlier this month. As much as one hoped that security in Iraq would improve under Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, the reality is something else.
Since there is no room for wishful thinking at the safety level in Iraq, it seems like security in Iraq has become a dream that is difficult to achieve. This article, about the ‘death’ of a cafe which was a leading magnet in Karrada, is symptomatic of what appears to be a continuing dismal future for Iraq. End Introduction
“Baghdadis live with constant threat of violence”
By Omar al-Jaffal writing in Al-Monitor on 20 May 2015
BAGHDAD — Cafe Ridha Alwan in central Baghdad’s Karrada district was packed with customers, mostly intellectuals, when an explosion rang out May 2 followed by gun shots. Sirens of the ambulance and firefighter trucks were heard wailing in the streets near the blast area. People rushed to leave the cafe for fear that another car would explode, as double-car bombings have been the signature attack of terrorist groups in Iraq who seem to be aiming at harming as many people as possible.
Ammar al-Shahbander and his colleague Emad al-Sharaa, who run the Iraqi Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), had left the coffee shop a few minutes before the bombing took place. Not long after, reports of Shahbander’s death circulated on social networking sites on the night of May 2, as well as reports about his colleague, who was injured and transported to the hospital, where he stayed more than three days. Shahbander sustained serious injuries which took his life and Sharaa broke his leg and received shapnel injuries to his head.
The day following the explosion, Karim Wasfi, a cello player with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, started to play amidst the rubble left by the car bomb. He was enraged, sad and defiant and wanted to commemorate the spirit of the victims through music.
Standing nearby, a 20-year-old man said, “Wasfi will eventually give up on striding from explosion area to another, as the blasts are being executed at a high tempo.”
Relative calm has prevailed over the last two months in central Baghdad and other urban areas, but the outskirts of the capital did witness security breaches. United Nations Iraq reported a surge in the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad and other governorates.
Since there is no room for wishful thinking at the safety level in Iraq, it seems like security in Iraq has become a dream that is difficult to achieve.
The Karrada district is considered a lively and dynamic area that includes headquarters of newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels as well as civil society organizations. There are also several coffee shops frequented by writers and artists.
Compared to the other areas of Baghdad, Karrada is still lively. The area is home to Muslims and Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. Women roam the streets, unveiled, and restaurants stay packed with families well into the late-night hours. The vital Karrada district is also close to Al-Bab al-Sharqi area, where a station for public transport is located, providing transportation for passengers to most areas of the capital.
The explosion that killed Shahbander was not an accidental security breach, as an explosion in the same area on May 9 changed all the equations, and the scene in Iraq became even more dreary. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the two blasts.
Ivan Hikmat, a children’s comic books illustrator, usually spends her holiday with her husband and her 1-year-old daughter at Cafe Ridha Alwan.
“[The situation] has become unbearable. This area was all there was left to spend [a] few leisure hours during the holiday,” she told Al-Monitor. “I don’t believe the government will be able to protect the area or Baghdad. It seems that things are completely beyond the government’s control.”
For his part, Hussam al-Saray, head of the House of Iraqi Poetry, told Al-Monitor: “Karrada is a lively place for all people of all sects to come together. However, if things continue to go down the same path, [Karrada] will turn into a traditional, reserved, working-class neighborhood.”
The House of Iraqi Poetry has organized a number of cultural events on Karrada’s sidewalks and in its coffee shops. “What is happening today is insane. We are risking our lives by coming here [to Karrada]. We should move to the coffee shop by the end of the street as death has yet to reach it,” Saray added.
Sadness and fear were clear in his voice, unlike the young filmmaker Mouhannad Hayyal’s voice, which was filled with defiance and challenge.
“Death is everywhere in the country, but being scared of sitting in a coffee shop won’t make life here any safer,” he told Al-Monitor.
Hayyal meets his colleagues at Cafe Ridha Alwan to discuss their film projects.
“IS could drop a bomb on my house any time, and I’ll be dead. Coming back to the coffee shop everyday is the biggest defiance of terrorism and death hovering over the country,” he said.
Nevertheless, death and horror manage to strip life away from the places they visit. Indeed, after May 10, Karrada seemed empty, except for the owners of imported clothes shops.
Meanwhile, Cafe Ridha Alwan, where people used to line up to be seated, had no more than 10 visitors.
To encourage people to revisit his coffee shops, the owner posted photos of the famous writers and artists who are regulars at his coffee shop on his Facebook page.
Karrada is not the only city losing dozens of people to bombings, and it’s expected that the May bombings won’t be the last. Because of the mismanagement of the country’s security dossier, bad omens abound in Iraq.
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Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) says that 34 journalists have been killed or wounded while carrying out their duties in Iraq in the past year. Alhurra’s correspondent Maitham Ashibani and cameraman Maitham al-Kahafaji were wounded in the city of Babylon yesterday.
Journalist and reportage illustrator George Butler travelled to Afghanistan in late 2014 – in the midst of British and international troop withdrawal after a thirteen-year long presence. George drew everyday life in villages and cities across the country, offering a compelling insight into a country living with conflict. In 2013, the Next Century Foundation (NCF) and the International Communications Forum (ICF) awarded George with an International Media Award for his drawings of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. The International Media Awards, which began in 2004, is an annual award ceremony held in London that acknowledges journalists who work in and on the Middle East and North Africa.
‘Day to day life seems to continue at the Faizabad market as any market might. People pour out of the mosque on the other side of the street in this north eastern Afghan city. One man sells a partridge in a wicker cage, another any bathroom product you could ever imagine. There is also the mobile phone credit man and the fruit seller’s cheeky son.’
George describes: ‘Life in Kabul over the last 30 years has not been easy by any stretch of an outsider’s imagination. At the end of 2014, international combat troops were set to have drawn down from Afghanistan. However, in reality there is still an international military presence. With regular explosions targeted at the prominent places in the Kabul the local and Military Police spend much more of their time at checkpoints. It is a particularly vulnerable time for them. It is not though the aggressive unfriendly place you might imagine from the news.’
‘I had been given permission by the Chief of Police of Kabul’s District 10 to draw at one of their checkpoints. These have become commonplace due to the heightened security risk. With this in the back of my mind I drew quickly and this was all I finished before deciding it was time to leave. Westerners and the police force were high up on the list of targets and the two together would have at some stage attracted unwanted attention.’
George’s drawings are exhibited in the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester from 21st February until 6th September 2015.