This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
"If we wait for the state ambulance, half of the injured would die," says 29-year-old Randa, a protester in Tahrir Square (aka Liberation Square) in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. She describes the tuk-tuk as the "backbone" of demonstrations that have raged since October against government corruption and a failure to deliver basic services. Randa, who has also been helping injured protesters, says that job would be impossible without the tuk-tuk. "When I see the bravery of the tuk-tuk drivers, their risk and sacrifice to help others, I'm glad we have them here."
For the past month, hundreds of tuk-tuks have lined the streets of Baghdad – the centre of the Iraqi protests. While emergency vehicles take hours to arrive, the nimble three-wheelers can move injured protesters quickly, aided by helpers who walk in front to disperse the crowd. Tuk-tuks also deliver food, water, first aid, masks, helmets and anti-tear gas goggles to protesters on the ground. One major reason for the drivers becoming such an important symbol of the protests is that they do all of this for free.
Since the demonstrations began, more than 260 protesters have been killed, while more than 11,000 have been injured. This is one of the biggest protests in Iraq's contemporary history, with people calling for secure job opportunities and an end to corruption, in an oil-rich country where somehow 22 percent of people live in poverty and 25 percent are unemployed, according to the World Bank.
Loai, a 24-year-old tuk-tuk driver from the Tarek district in the east of Baghdad, says the decision to join the protests and forego his income wasn’t difficult. “People's perception of us has changed during the revolution,” he says. “They’ve realised that we’re also victims of the regime. I'm happy to be at Tahrir Square with my brothers and sisters."
Iraqis didn't welcome the tuk-tuk when it invaded the streets around two years ago. Much cheaper than cars and costing about 2,250 euros, they spread quickly as a low-cost means of transportation in popular neighbourhoods. A motorised update on the traditional rickshaw, both the vehicle and its drivers were viewed by many as backwards and a blight on city streets.
"I swear, [my tuk-tuk] is my livelihood and my family’s livelihood,” says 27-year-old Ahmed Raad, another tuk-tuk driver who says he’s been assisting protesters in Tahrir Square since the 25th of October. “I used to earn 22 to 35 euros per day, but what matters more now – personal gain or public?” He says he and fellow drivers would never accept payment for their work in the protests. “This is not a job, it is a duty. But, to be honest, some protesters offer us gifts, which we refuse, but they insist… but I swear that our main objective is to serve the protesters."
The perception shift is palpable. The tuk-tuk is now part of Iraqi pop culture, with songs and poetry dedicated to it, and tuk-tuk key chains, t-shirts and wooden souvenirs in demand. This video has been widely shared, showing a group of girls cheering for a tuk-tuk driver, comparing its significance to a national flag. "Flag, it’s a flag, the tuk-tuk is a flag!” The driver becomes emotional and breaks down in tears.
Wafaa, 22, participated in the protests and regrets the way she used to treat tuk-tuk drivers. "I apologise for every bad word or look,” she says. “They are young people who are revolting against injustice. I regret constantly criticising them, but I’ve made it up to them by sending specially-prepared meals for them to Tahrir Square twice a week.”
See below for more images of tuk-tuks in the Iraqi protests.