Meet the Iraqi protesters painting their pain on walls

We meet demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square who are using graffiti to spark dialogue

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Zahra Lawha, a 15-year-old high school student, holds a paintbrush while standing with her cousins next to the abandoned Turkish Restaurant, a building that has been occupied by Iraqi protesters and borders the bridge leading into the Green Zone. The building has become a symbol of resistance, and Zahra and her friends plan to paint its walls with a picture of an eye weeping tears of blood with the Iraqi flag waving in the background. "We need to do this," she says, explaining why she has decided to create art and attend the protests despite the risks. "If we don't, who will?" 

Since the protests started in Baghdad on October 1, demonstrators have taken to Tahrir Square and artists have transformed every available wall from drab grey concrete to a bright burst of colour and graffiti. Artists and protesters filled the walls with drawings symbolic of the revolution: tuk-tuks with angel's wings, battles at the edge of the square, the faces of those slain and women holding high the Iraqi flag in protest. 

Last week, six people were killed as security forces continued their crackdown on the demonstrations. Young Iraqis are protesting against widespread corruption, a lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts. Despite Iraq's vast oil wealth, one in five people live in poverty and 25 per cent of its youth remain unemployed, according to the World Bank. Given that 60 per cent of Iraq's population of 40 million are under the age of 25, that figure is staggering.

Protesters have congregated in Baghdad’s streets since last month. Pesha Magid
Protesters have congregated in Baghdad’s streets since last month. Pesha Magid

Several taking part in the demonstrations tell The National that they have faced threats and arrest. Nevertheless, Tahrir Square has become a haven for artists and protesters who want to freely express the messages, hopes and dreams of the revolution. "The freedom of the Iraqi people is in this place," says Ali Khalifa, as he stands in front of a recently completed mural. "Here, there are women, Christians, all of the young people come here and there are no problems, there is no harassment. All of the young people are united to achieve complete freedom. We want all of Iraq to be like this place because there is freedom in this place and this is what the people want." 

Khalifa's painting depicts a young boy with a bullet flying towards his head. Next to him is the logo of the United Nations with the words "Where are you?" painted on top. "Every day they kill us, every day there are martyrs. We appeal to the United Nations to end this killing that happens daily and help us achieve our demands," says Khalifa, explaining the mural's meaning. "The government does not listen to our demands; they say there has been enough [done] and you should leave, but we haven't got any of our demands." 

A security crackdown since the nation-wide protests first broke out has killed more than 300 people, sparking outrage and anger among Iraqis. 

However, this week Iraq's three top officials banned the use of live ammunition and violence against protesters.

Standing in front of a mural of a protester wearing a face mask with furious eyes under furrowed eyebrows, Ahmed Fadhel, 37, says: "This represents the martyrs and young people in Tahrir Square. It represents every drop of blood that has fallen and the suppression." 

"We're not afraid," Zahra adds. "There are people who have died or were injured, but I'm not afraid. I stood in front of the riot police on the Sinak bridge.

“This is a revolution, it has become a revolution … We want to live like people in other countries, why should it be like this here?” 

Zahra and her fellow protesters are not only demanding reform, but are building the foundations for a new system of governance, she says. "From today, we truly have a nation, from the first day of the protests." 

But sending an anti-government message can have dangerous consequences. "In Baghdad, we can't do this because we will get arrested," says Khalifa. "They believe that if we spread these ideas the government will pay." 

We want all the countries in the world to hear our message. We want to live. We love life and want to live peacefully. That's the most important thing for us.

Khalifa stands in an underpass in Saadoun Street, one of the wide avenues leading to Tahrir Square, which has become an informal gallery for revolutionary art. A mural showing a TV with the words "Iraqi Channels" emblazoned across the top. Below, monkeys cover their ears, eyes and mouths: the message about the suppression of freedom of speech is clear. 

The government recently re-took three of the bridges formerly occupied by protesters using a mix of tear gas canisters and live bullets. But Tahrir Square remains a bubble, where art and protest continue to bloom, though many protesters fear arrest or kidnapping if they return home. Regardless, the square's graffiti artists profess their desire to continue to spread their messages for as long as they can. 

"We want all the countries in the world to hear our message. We want to live. We love life and want to live peacefully. That's the most important thing for us," says Fadhel. "I want to spread this message to the entire world: that we exist regardless of what might happen."