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The New Slums of Baghdad

The US military has withdrawn most of their forces from Iraq, but there are still plenty of places in Baghdad that are a nightmare.
December 4, 2013, 10:20pm
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 mph. Why was our driver gunning through the area like a demon? 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 from the blast radius. Welcome to 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 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 heavily armed Iraqi soldiers.

Coincidentally, most of theire guns actually came from the United States. 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 of gang activity. This explained why the soldiers in the pickup truck in front had stopped joking.

We drove past rows of sheep carcasses being decapitated in the street, and saw a severed head being cooked with a blowtorch by a young kid. As we passed into the residential area, there were shacks and tool sheds masquerading as houses and power lines in impossible jumbles. In between the homes were open sewers, overflowing with waste.

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 facilities to go paddling in the sewage water. When asked what they were doing, they 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, 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 right. We found out that the inhabitants of the house were all mentally ill, the products of incest. Deemed shameful, they'd been shipped to the most dangerous cesspit in the city and shoved into a room together with no hope for food or help other than an Anglican priest from Cambridge, England.

One of the women was extremely overweight 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 an old box on wooden legs.

The floor was covered in bird shit; pigeons walked on the baby and fought each other on the floor. The others in the room were screaming or laughing hysterically at each other. 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, crawling, hobbling, waddling, or limping.

Once communion was finished, we dropped off some food and White blessed the house and the new baby. Everyone there called White “Daddy” in Arabic and waved enthusiastically as he left. Some cried.

We piled into the convoy and moved on to the next house. White visits as many homes as he can during the week. Security or no security.