A respite from the violence
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Maybe it was because this week was the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, and even killers have to stay home with their families once a year. Maybe it was because a massive American operation had shut down some of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and U.S. soldiers with M-16 rifles were opening car trunks, favorite places for killers to stash their guns, bombs and struggling kidnap victims.
For the people of Baghdad, death took something of a holiday this week. By Thursday, U.S. and Iraqi military commanders were staring at murder rates that had fallen by half since Monday. On Thursday, Baghdad logged only one man killed by one bomb, the government said. It made for marveling.
“Quietest day in months,” said Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “Still quiet,” Khalaf said Friday.
On Monday, as the weeklong holiday began, Ali Rahad and his co-workers pushed open the rusty gates of the Tofaha amusement park, gingerly, as an experiment. Tofaha – the name means “apple” – last opened for business almost exactly a year ago, on the previous Eid holiday.
Tofaha has only aged swings, slides with the shine long worn off and heavy merry-go-rounds, on a city lot with the grass worn to dirt by children’s feet. But it’s one of the few places where families might conceivably go – Baghdad has few public parks, and many of the riverbanks where people used to picnic have been blocked off by the concrete blast walls of Iraqi and U.S. military bases.
So people at the park were hopeful. On Monday, Rahad, who runs a shooting gallery at Tofaha, waited. And waited. “Nobody came,” the gangly 20-year-old said. Unsure if the quiet would last, Baghdad’s people were still afraid, he said.
Eid marks the end of a demanding month of dawn-to-dusk fasting for Muslims. Families normally pass the holiday boisterously, traveling to see relatives and taking to the streets to parade in newly received finery.
But since last year’s holiday, the streets have been rendered largely deserted by a surge of Shiite and Sunni gunmen. The street outside the amusement park is pitted from bombs, and shops are shuttered. The neighborhood, Radill, is just outside Sadr City, a Shiite enclave where death squads hide.
“All the families are suffering,” Rahad said. “The kids are small, they forget what’s going on. They don’t understand why there are explosions and killing, and why they have to be jailed in their houses.”
By Wednesday, people were venturing out. On Thursday morning, in a neighborhood near the amusement park, shop owner Allah Abdul Hussein consulted with his wife as he looked at their cooped-up 2-year-old daughter, Nour.
Hussein and his wife considered: Tofaha traditionally had drawn both Sunni and Shiite families; maybe that would protect it from bombs by either side. By midday, Hussein and his wife dared. They put Nour in the car and went to the park.
“Because nothing happened today, I brought them here, to have fun,” Hussein said. A solemn Nour, in a new dress with a ruffled heart spread across the bodice, held his hand. Cowed, she looked up at the green helium balloon tied to her other hand and looming over her, bigger than her body.
In Hilla, a city about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Mohammed Salman, a 32-year-old former government employee laid off when the war began, got word that Tofaha was open for Eid. Hilla has had so many bombs, Salman said, that there was no place left for his children to play. “They were crying in the house, begging me to take them out,” he said. “It’s Eid, it’s Eid, we must go,” his son told him. So Salman drove them to Tofaha.
At Tofaha, younger children sat stiffly on swings and on the saddles of merry-go-rounds. Play was something that had grown unfamiliar to them.
Maisa Mohammed, 12, moved among them in a holiday ensemble of heels and a blue chiffon gown, with purple sunglasses and, in her hair, an orange ostrich plume. She had come here Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
Older children like Maisa helped younger ones climb ladders to slides and taught them to pump their legs on swings. “I was dreaming to come here, to play,” Maisa said. Except for school, she said, she hadn’t been out since last Eid.
Five-year-old Mutaz clung, unsmiling and unmoving, to his grandmother each time she put him on a piece of playground equipment. His mother, Dunya Abdul Rahman, 34, scrunched her face when asked the last time she had taken Mutaz outside the house. “Phoooh!” Rahman exclaimed, trying to think. “Six months.”
“I am afraid someone will kidnap him, kill him,” Rahman said. “He is the only son I have. I cannot even send him to school.”
“Tell them in America about the children in Iraq,” Rahman said. “Tell them about the children in prison.”
The park would be open only another day, through the end of Eid on Friday. No one was counting on the decline in killing to continue. The American operation that shut down normal traffic in Shiite neighborhoods was temporary, part of a search for a kidnapped American soldier.
U.S. military officers played down the notion that their troops’ increased operations and the sealing off of Sadr City had contributed to the drop in violence, saying it was a normal calm for Eid. “We can’t cordon off Iraq,” said Col. Nelson McCouch, a public affairs officer in Baghdad.
At Tofaha, younger children started smiling, yelling, shouting one another’s names across the playground as the afternoon wore on. Rahad oversaw a line of boys at his shooting gallery, clustering for a shot at the bull’s-eye with wooden-stock rifles, real military weapons stripped of their ammunition clips.
“We are having fun!” shouted Mariam and Batool, two next-door-neighbors, answering questions as they soared on swings, their hair flying. “We are not afraid!”
Hussein was. He pulled Nour out of the park. “We’re leaving fast, while it’s still safe,” he said.
At the slide, the children who remained broke into smiles each time their feet landed in the dirt at the bottom. They huddled there for a second before running off, overcome by excitement. Maisa, her orange ostrich plume still high, slid again and again. She stored up the exhilaration that would take her through to next Eid, if war didn’t overtake her.
“One time, in a year,” Maisa said. “Every year.”