Medic, driver, witness, baker: four faces of Iraqi's uprising
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Tears roll out from behind Ayat's oversized glasses but her hands, facing the sky, are steady. Her friends are gone, killed protesting Iraq's government, but their "revolution" continues.
"Peace be upon you and on your two rivers, Iraq," sings Kazem Saher as young demonstrators mourn their peers in the epicentre of the anti-regime movement in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.
They stand sombre and motionless under the imposing "Liberty Monument," as if mirroring the bronze figures on the long marble slab above them retelling Iraq's tumultuous history.
Ayat, a medic, is but one of the characters in this new chapter, along with social media activist Ali, the beloved baker Khayriya and Hussein, who transports wounded demonstrators on his three-wheeled rickshaw.
- The medic -
By candlelight on a chilly Baghdad evening, Ayat honours the hundreds who have died in protest-related violence since demonstrations erupted on October 1.
But by morning, she is hard at work, trying to make sure she won't have to mourn anyone else.
The 23-year-old medical student twists her long black hair into a bun and heads to the streets near Tahrir where security forces fire tear gas, smoke grenades and sometimes live rounds at teenage protesters.
There, she treats lanky young demonstrators choking on tear gas and others bleeding from bullet wounds.
She keeps a stethoscope around her neck, a medical mask on her face and wears a motorcycle helmet.
"At any moment, they could fire on us," says Ayat, donning a white lab coat stitched with her blood type, O-.
"At any moment, we could die."
- The driver -
When a protester is too badly hurt for Ayat to treat, Hussein and his tuk-tuk motor rickshaw come to the rescue.
The 18-year-old has been driving the cherry red three-wheeler as a taxi for two years, earning a small income for his family living in a poor quarter of Baghdad.
But since protests began two months ago, the vehicles once looked down on as a working class necessity have become a symbol of the uprising -- and their drivers, heroes.
With one unceasing honk of his horn, Hussein zips around sharp turns and clusters of protesters to come to a screeching halt at the frontlines.
Protesters and medics flock to him, lay coughing, bleeding or unconscious protester on the back bench before Hussein speeds off to a field clinic or hospital.
"The tuk-tuk driver takes wounded people to the hospital all on his own. He brings food. He brings everything to those on the frontline," says Hussein proudly.
It comes with risks: riot police have damaged his tuk-tuk, and Hussein was recently stopped and beaten.
He makes $10-$15 per day for the life-saving work but the real reward, he says, is feeling that he is part of "a big family".
- The witness -
Ali, too, has his mission: documenting the clashes on his smartphone and sending the reports to media outlets, rights groups and Iraqis abroad.
He wears a helmet, a cargo vest and a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh as a scarf to protect his mouth and nose from tear gas, but also to hide his face.
Young activists like Ali have been repeatedly threatened and fear having their photographs taken by suspicious men near Tahrir.
"Despite the threats, the repression, the intimidation and the campaign of terror, we're staying," says the lanky 21-year-old with green eyes and whispy facial hair.
He wants to document everything: "every bullet fired by the state or militias, every tear gas canister, every flash bang."
Authorities "say they're not firing live rounds," Ali says, "but we see them and film them every day."
- The baker -
To revolt, one must eat.
That's something Khayriya, who travelled with her children from her hometown in southern Iraq, understands perfectly.
Amid the chaos of Tahrir square, Khayriya kneads dough, lovingly lays out balls of it on a baking sheet and slides it into a portable oven she brought with her.
The veiled woman in her fifties hands out loaves to hungry protesters or lays down slices of bread on plastic plates, topping them with a traditional Iraqi spiced vegetable stew.
From morning until night, she bakes, serves and shares a bite with protesters who are re-energised her aromatic pastries.
Her monthly pension of $150 can barely feed her family in oil-rich Iraq, where one in five people live below the poverty line.
"We should have everything we need," she says. "Iraq is not a small country. And we're Iraqis, are we not? We have the right to our share."
- Their dreams -
The movement has already outlasted the expectations of the most ardent protesters -- but it has yet to fulfil their aspirations.
"I dream of nice schools and hospitals, of a relaxing life," says Hussein, after a long day ferrying wounded in Tahrir. "A salary, something to start a family with."
He sits on the edge of Baghdad's river Tigris, watching the red-hot sunset in a T-shirt with the English logo "Never look back".
"So my future son could go to a peaceful school, so that we live in security, so we feel good and don't have war, or sectarian violence or any of that," he says.
With the sun dipping just below the opposite bank, Hussein sighs.
"I dream of having a country and of living free."
© 2019 AFP