BAGHDAD – Ali says he has seen more than 50 people killed in front of him since anti-government protests began in Iraq last month.
“The first one was shocking – he was someone I knew, and they shot him in the chest,” said Ali, in his early 20s and from Baghdad’s low-income Sadr City district.
“But you quickly get used to death … I’ve seen people, some of them friends, choke, drown, have their skulls split open by tear gas and stun grenades,” Ali, who declined to give his last name, said as he played a mobile phone video of the shooting victim in his final moments in the capital’s Tahrir Square last month.
“We can’t even cry over their bodies any more.”
Since the start of October, more than 250 Iraqis have been killed protesting against a government they see as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests, according to eyewitnesses and medical and security sources.
There was no immediate comment from the interior ministry, which oversees many of the security forces, but a government report said nearly 150 people were killed in the first week of the unrest, 70% from bullets to the head or chest.
Recounting stories of his fallen comrades, Ali leaned against a mound of dirty blankets on the Tigris river bank under the Jumhuriya – or Republic – Bridge.
For the past 10 days, hundreds of young men and boys – some as young as 12 – have been camped out on the bridge, and under it. Wearing construction hats, gas masks, and chanting for the downfall of the government, they call themselves “the front line of the revolution”.
The bridge, which leads from the square to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located, has seen fierce clashes between protesters and security forces.
Protesters, armed with slingshots, have erected barricades of iron sheets and concrete blocks. Security forces have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas against them, killing scores on the adjacent Jumhuriya and Sinak bridges.
Both sides have settled into an uneasy stalemate.
“We throw rocks at them, and they respond by killing us,” said Ali, as several tear gas canisters were lobbed by security forces.
BOYS UNDER THE BRIDGE
A group of medical volunteers have set up camp to help the wounded. They say the expired tear gas – Reuters saw used canisters with an expiry date of 2014 – is making people choke.
One young man, barefoot and wearing a dirty tank top and trousers, passed out after choking on the gas. A Reuters correspondent saw medics lower him off the bridge and put him in a tuk-tuk headed for a nearby hospital.
Ali is surrounded by a tight-knit group of 10, who have been camped under the Jumhuriya bridge since Oct. 24.
Reminiscent of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, the group radiated an intensity forged by bloodshed. Many come from Baghdad’s poorest neighborhoods, where they work as tuk-tuk drivers or day laborers.
Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education. Protesters blame corruption.
“For 16 years we’ve been told that our lives would be better,” said Abbas, who declined to give his last name.
“But I’m 19 and I’ve worked most days since I was 10 and still I don’t have more than 5,000 dinars ($4) in my pocket.”
Abbas was arrested in the first wave of protests, along with Ali and others in the group. They said their phones were scanned to identify fellow protesters. Released on bail, they were told to stay away from the demonstrations.
“But the very next day I went back to the protests,” said Ali. “We have to stay here to keep the revolution going.”
Nearly all those Reuters spoke to had bandages on their arms, torsos and legs. They said many of their injuries came from security forces who fire tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, sometimes from boats on the river.
It is most dangerous at night, they said.
A few nights ago at 3 a.m., security forces threw gasoline at their camp, followed by burning rags, Ali said. The rags landed near a group of sleeping boys, according to a video seen by Reuters.
The boys now stand guard in shifts.
“The second we leave this bridge, the government will storm Tahrir Square and finish off the protests,” Ali said. “They can throw whatever they want at us. But we’re not going anywhere.”