The New Slums of Baghdad
The American military has withdrawn most of their forces from Iraq, but Baghdad is still a nightmare. Terrorists, local gangs, street hustlers, and hucksters all mingle in the real-world horror show of post-war Iraq.
Photos by Dylan Roberts
Huddled in the back seat of our convoy, I got a blurred view of Baghdad as we passed through the city center. It was hard to catch a glimpse of anything when our car was topping 90 miles an hour. The reason our driver was gunning through the area like a demon was simple—four bombings in the area that morning, and more happening every day. Our fixer in Baghdad said in broken English, “If the news says a number of dead, double it. Then you maybe have a number near the death." Most of the blasts here are carried out by Sunni militants against the Shiite population huddling in their cars or out shopping for food in the markets.
Gone are the days of suicide bombers with vests. These days, the explosions are timed meticulously and set off in conjunction with peak traffic. The old school move of ripping off your jacket and screaming, “God is great” just doesn’t fit anymore. Try six parked cars packed full of explosives, nails, and other nasty shit; all remotely detonated by a man sipping a coffee from his apartment far above the blast radius. Welcome to modern, post-US-withdrawal Baghdad. Boys with toys, breathtaking anger management issues, and religious zeal that would make Gary Busey look sane.
We hurtled through the dirty, charred streets on the outskirts of the city on our way to visit some families struggling with day-to-day life in one of the nine districts in Baghdad known as Al-Jidida or “New Baghdad." Our guide through the city was Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest living in the city's red zone. He was making his weekly parish visits, complete with a three-car convoy and Iraqi soldiers with more guns than Texas.
Coincidentally, most of the guns actually come from the United States. Canon White very calmly informed me that the streets we were speeding through were the most dangerous in the city, and not just because of bombings; they also happen to be hotbeds for gang activity. This explained why the soldiers in the pickup truck in front stopped joking around and looked like they were in the first stages of slowly rethinking their career choice.
We drove past endless rows of sheep being decapitated in the street, and a severed head getting cooked with a blowtorch by a young kid. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the smell of incinerated sheep skulls in the morning.
As we passed into the residential area, there were shacks and tool sheds masquerading as houses and power lines strung up like a drunk spider decided to get artsy. The wires hanging down practically invited everyone to come and shake hands with 10,000 volts of electricity.
In between the homes were open sewers. Shit overflowed and steamed into the streets.
Garbage was piled waist-high on all sides, and a makeshift swimming pool had been erected in the middle of the trash pile. It had rained for two days and nights that week, so the local kids used the new god-given facilities to go paddling in the diseased sewage water. When asked why, they simply said, “Where else can we play?”
We arrived at the first stop on our parish visit tour: a single room, with 12 people living in it. It was dark, with pictures of Iraq’s past leaders hanging on the walls. The television set in the corner spit static, and a prerecorded prayer clashed with an invading music station bleeding through 70s hits.
As we made our way in, Canon White greeted the people as the security outside scrambled to form a perimeter and kept a watchful eye on the rooftops and alleys.
It became clear as we sat with the people in the room that something wasn’t quite right. We found out that the inhabitants of the house were all mentally ill, and the products of incestuous encounters between their parents.
Circumstances like these have made them a shame to the government. There are many families in similar situations. So, as any self-respecting government would do, they shipped them off to the deepest, darkest, most dangerous cesspit in the city and shoved them all into a room together with no hope for food or help other than an Anglican priest from Cambridge, England.
One of the women was at least 300 pounds and had stumps for legs. She'd just given birth to a child by her relative, also in the house with her. The baby cradle was made of an old box on wooden legs.
The floor was covered in bird shit, with pigeons walking on the baby and fighting each other on the floor. The others in the room were screaming or laughing hysterically at each other. Canon White calmed them down and prayed over each one. After the last prayer, the power to the whole house cut off theatrically. Giddy squirming and giggling ensued. After everyone settled, Canon White proceeded to offer them all communion in the darkness. One by one, they all slowly made their way to him, some crawling; others hobbling, waddling, or limping.
Once communion was finished, we dropped off some food and White blessed the house and the new baby. We left through the back as security began to sink into paranoia. They all called Canon White “Daddy” in Arabic and waved enthusiastically as he left. Some cried.
We piled into the convoy and moved on to the next house. Canon White visits as many homes as he can during the week. Security or no security. Tomorrow will be no different.
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